Status Report

Commercial Space Transportation: Improvements to FAA’s Workforce Planning Needed to Prepare for the Industry’s Anticipated Growth

By SpaceRef Editor
May 23, 2019
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Full report

What GAO Found

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) within the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA), in collaboration with other FAA offices, is taking a
range of actions, such as testing new technologies, to improve how efficiently
FAA integrates space vehicle launch operations into the national airspace.
According to FAA officials, the amount of airspace that FAA closes to other
airspace users is larger and remains closed longer than may be needed to
ensure public safety. To help remedy this situation, FAA is piloting prototype
technologies that would collect launch vehicles’ location data in real-time and
transmit them to air traffic controllers. Officials said the earliest these
technologies could be implemented would be 2022. In March 2019, FAA
published an announcement seeking interest from industry on partnering with
FAA to further develop the technologies. Meanwhile, FAA is assessing how
existing air traffic control technologies could be used to help reduce the effects of
launches on other airspace users.

Since 2016, AST has taken steps to improve how it determines its current
workforce needs to carry out its mission including licensing commercial launch
vehicle operations. These steps include more comprehensively monitoring staff
time spent on specific activities and measuring the volume of the staff’s work.
While AST officials told us that AST is planning to continue to improve its
workforce-planning efforts, GAO found that some aspects of AST’s efforts fall
short of key principles of strategic workforce planning. Such principles
underscore the importance of determining both current and future workforce
needs and identifying potential gaps in employee skills. For example:

  • AST does not project its workload beyond a 2-year budget cycle, limiting its
    ability to effectively and strategically plan for its longer-term workforce needs.
    According to officials, it can take a few years for engineers with certain skills
    to be trained and have sufficient experience to lead projects. Further, AST
    officials told GAO that hiring technically qualified personnel, including
    positions that require considerable training and experience to be a fully
    functioning employee, is challenging. AST officials said that they are
    considering projecting their workload estimates further into the future, but
    they have neither formally committed to doing so nor established a timeline
    with milestones.

  • AST officials acknowledged that the information AST currently collects on the
    skills of its staff is not sufficient to allow them to identify gaps between the
    skills and competencies needed and those that its workforce currently
    possesses or may need in the future, such as expertise in flight safety
    analysis. AST officials told GAO that they plan to develop a tool that could
    collect information annually from staff and managers about the specific skills
    and competencies that individual staff currently possess. As of May 2019,
    however, AST had neither developed a draft of the tool nor established a
    timeline for finalizing it. Without this information, AST lacks reasonable
    assurance that its current workforce possesses the requisite skills and
    competencies, and AST may not be best positioned to proactively determine
    how to align its staff to carry out its mission. 

Why GAO Did This Study

The commercial space transportation
industry provides launch services that
enable national-security and
commercial satellites, among other
things, to be sent into orbit for
government and private customers.
Continued growth and evolution in the
industry is expected as reliance on
space-based applications increases.
AST is charged with overseeing the
industry, including licensing and
monitoring launch vehicle operations.

GAO was asked to review
developments in this industry. This
report (1) describes FAA’s actions to
integrate commercial space launches
into the national airspace and (2)
examines how well-positioned AST is
to determine its current and future
workforce needs, among other
objectives. GAO reviewed relevant
statutes, regulations, and FAA
guidance; compared FAA’s workforce
management efforts to key principles
for effective workforce planning; and
interviewed FAA officials and U.S.
commercial launch providers that had
conducted an FAA-licensed launch as
of January 2018, among other industry
stakeholders.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations
on workforce planning to AST,
including that AST establish a timeline
for finalizing longer-term workload
projections and that AST ensure that it
collects information from staff on skills
and competencies in those areas that
are currently needed and may be
needed in the future. AST concurred
with the recommendations.

View GAO-19-437. For more information,
contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or
[email protected] 

SpaceRef staff editor.