How the FAA Reduces Flight Disruptions During Rocket Launches Like Artemis I

NASA conducted the missions and landed a total of 12 astronauts — the first being Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.

376713 16: (FILE PHOTO) One of the few photographs of Neil Armstrong on the moon shows him working on his space craft on the lunar surface. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission is celebrated July 20, 1999. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers)

One of the few photographs of Neil Armstrong on the moon.

NASA/Getty Images



Source: World Population Review

Now, after decades of waiting and anticipation, NASA is finally nearing its return — a feat it hopes to accomplish by 2026.

orange artemis 1 rocket inside multiplatform assembly building

NASA’s Artemis I.

NASA/Frank Michaux



Source: Space.com

The goal of the mission, known as Artemis, is to establish a “gateway” to the Moon and build a base camp on its surface, according to NASA.

Artemis Base Camp.

Artemis Base Camp.

NASA


Source: NASA

The agency will start with the highly-anticipated Artemis I on August 29, which will be a 42-day unmanned flight test. Though, the date is subject to change.

Artemis I's Space Launch System (SLS) core stage.

Artemis I’s Space Launch System (SLS) core stage.

NASA


Source: NASA

Artemis II will be a flight test mission carrying astronauts…

Artemis II core stage assembly.

Artemis II core stage assembly.

NASA


Source: NASA

…while Artemis III “and beyond” will operate as regular crewed missions on and around the Moon.

Artemis III's core stage liquid oxygen tank dome.

Artemis III’s core stage liquid oxygen tank dome.

NASA


Source: NASA

Artemis I will be the first test of the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Artemis I at NASA's facility in Florida.

Artemis I at NASA’s facility in Florida.

NASA


The space vehicles will allow scientists to more thoroughly explore the lunar body, with the eventual goal of sending a human to Mars.

NASA's Pathfinder rover on Mars.

NASA’s Pathfinder rover on Mars.

NASA


Source: NASA

A mission as complex as launching a rocket into space requires the collaboration of government agencies, private companies, and multiple countries, like the Federal Aviation Administration, Lockheed Martin, Japan, the UK, and France-based Airbus.

Artemis' astronaut capsule.

Artemis’ astronaut capsule.

NASA


Source: US Department of State

The planemaker has produced the European Service Module for Artemis I, which will “provide propulsion, power, air and water for the astronauts, as well as thermal control of the entire spacecraft.”

The European-built Service Module (ESM) for NASA’s Artemis II mission.

The European-built Service Module (ESM) for NASA’s Artemis II mission.

NASA


Source: Airbus

The FAA has a particularly vital role during launches and reentries because it regulates the national airspace system (NAS), so its oversight is necessary to “efficiently managing air traffic during space operations.”

FAA NAS.



FAA


Source: FAA

The FAA Space Operations Office, known as Space Ops, is the unit that specializes in integrating space operations into the NAS.

Challenger Room at FAA's Air Travel Control System Command Center in Virginia.

Challenger Room at FAA’s Air Travel Control System Command Center in Virginia.

Taylor Rains/Insider


Its Challenger room, where the agency oversees the Florida operations, is located at the agency’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) in Warrenton, Virginia.

The FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center.

The FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center.

Taylor Rains/Insider


Air traffic organization (ATO) space operations manager Duane Freer took Insider on a tour of the room to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes during space launches.

The FAA's Challenger Room.

The FAA’s Challenger Room.

Taylor Rains/Insider


According to Freer, the Challenger room was dedicated on November 8, 2018, to the FAA’s former deputy director of system operation services Virginia Boyle…

The FAA's Challenger Room.

The FAA’s Challenger Room.

Taylor Rains/Insider


…and named after the Space Shuttle Challenger crew who tragically died in an accident in 1986.

The Challenger Crew (L-R): Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael J. Smith, and Ellison Onizuka.

The Challenger Crew (L-R): Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael J. Smith, and Ellison Onizuka.

NASA


The agency’s oversight of the missions started in 2014 when it began collaborating with the federal ranges that previously oversaw the operations, including Wallops Flight Facility, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and Vandenburg Space Force Base, Freer told Insider.

Inside the Wallops range control center.

Inside the Wallops range control center

NASA


Freer said there are an estimated 100,000 satellites to be put into orbit in the future, so the FAA realized the need for improved airspace management.

Syncom IV satellite orbiting Earth, pictured in 1984.

Syncom IV satellite orbiting Earth, pictured in 1984.

NASA


Initially, the ranges ran the missions with airspace given to them by the FAA, which then got a phone call saying the mission was done. But, there was a time lag in communication, resulting in airspace closing much longer than needed.

A map of restricted airspace for a 2013 SpaceX Falcon 9 launch.

A map of restricted airspace for a 2013 SpaceX Falcon 9 launch.

US Air Force


Because commercial operators compete for the same airspace, Freer said “efficiency is the upmost importance,” and the agency started innovating its systems to reduce the time airspace was closed during each launch.

The FAA's Challenger Room.

The FAA’s Challenger Room.

Taylor Rains/Insider


In 2018, which is when the FAA started real-time operations from the Challenger room, the airspace around Cape Canaveral was closed for up to four hours per launch.

The FAA's Challenger Room.

The FAA’s Challenger Room.

Taylor Rains/Insider


This means airlines and general aviation aircraft had to avoid the area for extended periods of time. Many had to take delays due to the issue or circumvent the East Coast of Florida, burning more fuel and spending more time in the air.

A United Airlines plane flying

Laura Waring eventually secured a seat 13 hours after her original flight was cancelled.

Justin Sullivan / Staff / Getty


However, the FAA wanted only to reroute affected planes, meaning those that were to enter the aircraft hazard area, which is a a three dimensional space spanning from the ground to 60,000 feet in the air, per the agency.

Sample hazard area.

Sample hazard area.

FAA


Source: FAA

Instead of waiting on the launch operator, like NASA or SpaceX, to give the go-ahead to reopen the airspace, the FAA can now better estimate when the space vehicle will launch and when any potential debris will be gone from the area.

The FAA's Challenger Room.

The FAA’s Challenger Room.

Taylor Rains/Insider


The information helps air traffic controllers know when to start detouring planes around the closed airspace, how long they will need to keep them clear, and when they can move them back in.

Air traffic controller.

Air traffic controller.

Burben/Shutterstock


“We took a time-based approach using our existing tools to strategically manage the aircraft so they get out of the airspace right before the launch and back in post-launch,” he said. “We want to reopen the airspace as soon as we can.”

Airplane



Ulrich Zillmann/Getty Images


The agency also has a hotline open during missions, which has the range, operators, the Department of Defense, and all air traffic facilities involved, so they have real-team awareness of when the airspace should be closed and reopened.

The FAA's Challenger Room.

The FAA’s Challenger Room.

Taylor Rains/Insider


For example, SpaceX supercools its liquid oxygen on its Falcon 9, so once it starts loading the fuel, it can only keep it cool long enough to launch for 35 minutes. SpaceX notifies the FAA of when that process starts.

SpaceX Falcon 9.

SpaceX Falcon 9.

Getty Images


The FAA then knows that SpaceX has to launch in 35 minutes or scrub. If the company has a three-hour window, the agency can do the math and release hours of airspace back to the system.

The FAA's Challenger Room.

The FAA’s Challenger Room.

Taylor Rains/Insider


They also build in time for SpaceX’s booster to land back on Earth, which can be about eight minutes.

SpaceX booster returning to Earth.

SpaceX booster returning to Earth.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images


Moreover, the agency works with airlines and general aviation operators to ensure they know the plan, like posting Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMS) and sending the Airspace Management Plan (AMP) three to five days in advance.

Map of airspace restrictions for a launch.

Map of airspace restrictions for a launch.

FAA


Source: FAA, Skybrary

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