FAA Licensing - Part 450


A vehicle operator license authorizes a licensee to conduct one or more launches from one or more sites (including pre- and post-flight ground operations) and/or reentries using the same vehicle or family of vehicles.

Vehicle operator licenses are governed under 14 CFR Part 450 (which replaces Parts 415, 417, 431, and 435  as of June 8, 2021).

How does a launch vehicle operator obtain a license?

A vehicle operator must complete the following steps to obtain a vehicle operator’s license:

Step 1: Develop a Plan

the operator must first develop a plan, which will be discussed at the pre-application consultation. The plan should include the following:

  • Concept of operations (“CONOP”)
  • Unique mission aspects
  • Mission description
  • Vehicle description
  • Launch and/or reentry sites
  • Organization
  • Program status and desired timeframe
  • Program schedule that includes a definition of significant milestones, including:
    • design reviews and testing,
    • environmental analyses/reviews,
    • application submission,
    • authorization need,
    • target date of first operation
    • frequency of contact with AST
  • Information to show that the launch or reentry vehicle program is sufficiently mature and stable to perform an initial design review. For example:
    • Award of a government contract with program milestones leading to a flight
    • Funding
    • Known investors or assets
    • Manufacture or testing of hardware
  • Information relating to means of compliance with the requirements set out in 14 CFR Part 450, Subpart C. In particular, the operator must ensure that the following means of compliance are acceptable to the FAA (although there are a lot more safety elements and means of compliance, the regs indicate that the FAA must approve these before the FAA accepts the application).
  • Information relating to any requested safety element approvals
  • Information relating to any requested incremental review

Step 2: Reach out to FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transporation (AST)

Next the operator must contact AST by completing the Pre-Application Initial Contact Information form located here.

Step 3: Attend Initial Discussions with AST

The discussion begins with conversations on the applicant’s Concept of Operations (CONOPs). A Commercial Space Transportation POC is assigned to the applicant, and a regulatory path is defined based on the applicant’s CONOPs.

Step 4: Attend Pre-Application Consultation

Next, the operator will attend a pre-application consultation with AST. See 14 CFR § 413.5. The application process is long and work-intensive, and AST wants applicants to succeed. They view this consultation as the beginning of a collaborative approach to getting applicants across the finish line. A checklist and sample agenda for the consultation are found in a document entitled “Pre-Application Consultation Checklist,” which can be found at this page on the FAA’s website.

  • A full pre-app team is assigned to the applicant
  • The license documents may be created and submitted to Commercial Space Transportation for feedback and refinement
  • The environmental process (NEPA) begins [if applicable]
  • The airspace and U.S. Coast Guard discussions begin [if applicable]
  • Ends when the application is submitted formally and accepted by Commercial Space Transportation for evaluation

Step 5: Receive Pre-Application Approval for Means of Compliance

Step 6: Comply with Financial Responsibility Requirements

The FAA regulations (14 CFR Part 440) require the operator to meet certain financial responsibility requirements.

Step 7: Submit Application

The operator must submit a license application in accordance with the procedures set out in 14 CFR Part 413.

Step 8: AST Reviews the Application

FAA AST is required by statute to make a determination within 180 days.

Step 9: Obtain Policy Approval

Next, the operator must obtain a policy approval from the FAA in accordance with 14 CFR § 450.41.

Step 10: Obtain Payload Determination

The operator must obtain a favorable payload determination from the FAA in accordance with 14 CFR § 450.43, if applicable.

Step 11: Obtain Safety Approval

The operator must obtain a safety approval from the FAA in accordance with 14 CFR § 450.45. Note that this safety approval is different from a safety element approval, which is described at 14 CFR Part 414.

Step 12: Satisfy Environmental Review

The operator must satisfy the environmental review requirements of 14 CFR § 450.47.

Step 13: Provide Maximum Probable Loss Information

The operator must provide information for the FAA to conduct a maximum probable loss analysis for the operation, as set out in Appendix A of part 440.

The operator may obtain approvals as set out above all at once, or they may obtain them incrementally, in modules. In order to take an incremental approach, the operator must first obtain approval from the FAA before submitting its application. See 14 CFR § 450.33.

Step 14: License Issuance or Denial

If AST grants the license, safety inspectors will begin inspections and monitoring. Inspections and monitoring may last throughout the life of the license.

How long does a license last?

A license will be issued for a time period that the FAA determines, up to five years from the date of issuance. A license can also be renewed.

Can a license be transferred?

Yes. The FAA can transfer a license from one operator to another. The request for transfer can come from either the original license holder or the transferee. The transferee must satisfy all of the requirements under Part 450 for a license.

What are the accepted means of compliance that an applicant must meet to obtain a license?

The regulations at 14 CFR Part 450 Subpart C contain a long list of safety elements. The applicant must have a “means of compliance” for all of these safety elements (in other words, a method of satisfying those safety elements).

The regulations, themselves, don’t explain specifically how an applicant can satisfy the safety elements. Fortunately, however, the FAA has released a number of “Advisory Circulars” that provide specific guidance. You can find several of these Advisory Circulars as well as a document entitled “Part 450 Means of Compliance Table” at this page on the FAA’s website.

What is a safety element approval?

Sometimes, when a vehicle operator is applying for a launch license, the operator (or even a third-party) might ask the FAA to independently determine that a payload, a crew member, or some other element of the stuff going into space will not pose a danger (if it did pose a danger, it would jeopardize the license application).

For example, suppose that a launch provider plans to launch 100 satellites, all owned and operated by different separate companies. The launch provider is responsible for filing the license application with the FAA to launch all 100 satellites. It would certainly lessen the launch provider’s burden if the satellite owner/operators could separately work with the FAA to obtain safety element approvals for their satellites, so that the launch provider can focus on the parts of the application dealing with the launch vehicle and the launch plan.

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