Fast Facts

Demand for commercial space launches, which send satellites into orbit for government and private customers, is expected to increase in the coming years.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation oversees the commercial space transportation industry. However, we found that the office doesn’t project its workload beyond a 2-year budget cycle, which means that it may not be planning effectively or strategically for its future workforce needs.

We made recommendations to help the office ensure that its future staff is the appropriate size and has the kinds of skills they will need to oversee this industry.

Examples of vertical orbital launch vehicles

4 photos of vertical orbital launch vehicles.

4 photos of vertical orbital launch vehicles.

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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Aviation Administration 1. The Associate Administrator of AST should develop workload metrics that encompass the whole office and that would allow AST to determine an appropriate workforce size and composition. (Recommendation 1)
Open
As of July 2020, AST has developed an initial set of metrics for the office's workload and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Labor Analysis to enhance and validate the metrics.
Federal Aviation Administration 2. The Associate Administrator of AST should establish a timeline for finalizing workload projections that extend beyond the 2-year budget cycle and that include an approach for addressing uncertainty. (Recommendation 2)
Open
As of July 2020, AST said that it has extended the projection period of the staffing model to five years and that it is working with the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Labor Analysis to validate the extended projections and to include an approach to address uncertainty.
Federal Aviation Administration 3. The Associate Administrator of AST should ensure that its skills assessment survey collects information from staff on skills and competencies in those areas that are both currently needed and may be needed in the future. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
The Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), within FAA, has an important role in ensuring the safety of commercial space launches. Employees in this office are responsible for licensing commercial space launch operations and non-federal launch sites, and conducting safety inspections, among other things. Key principles for effective strategic workforce planning call for an organization to identify-and subsequently develop strategies to address-gaps between the skills and competencies needed and those that its workforce has. Further, according to federal Standards for Internal Control, an organization's management should ensure that the workforce skills necessary to achieve programmatic goals are continually assessed. In 2019, GAO reported that AST had yet to collect information on staff skills and competencies that would enable it to identify potential gaps in those skills, gaps that further limited AST's ability to effectively and efficiently align its available staff resources with current and future workloads. AST officials acknowledged that the workforce information it currently collects was insufficient to allow them to systematically identify gaps in specific staff skills or competencies-such as expertise in flight safety analysis or launch vehicle propulsion-needed for evaluating certain launch license applications. AST officials told GAO that they were planning to develop and annually administer to staff and managers a skills assessment survey that would collect information about the specific skills and competencies that individual staff currently possess. However, as of May 2019, AST had neither developed a draft of the skills assessment survey, nor established a formal timeline for finalizing it or a plan for periodically administering the survey. Without systematic information on specific skills and competencies of its entire workforce, AST lacks reasonable assurance that its current workforce possesses the requisite skills and competencies and may not be able to efficiently identify opportunities to move staff within AST to help address identified skills gaps. Therefore, GAO recommended that AST ensure that its skills assessment survey collects information from staff on skills and competencies that are both currently needed and may be needed in the future. In 2020, GAO confirmed that AST conducted a survey of aerospace engineers and their managers to assess the engineers' skills. The survey collected information on specific competency areas that engineers need to successfully perform their jobs. It also collected information on competencies AST may require in the future to meet its growing and evolving mission. After analyzing the results of the survey, AST identified several next steps to improve the competencies and skills of AST's engineers. These include creating a training and development strategy to help close skill gaps within its current workforce, and enhancing collaboration with other FAA offices and the space industry to gain insight into the latest advances and changes in commercial space transportation. As a result of its efforts to collect information on its workforce's skills-and to develop strategies to address skill gaps-AST can better ensure that it is prepared to make strategic decisions on how to address emerging skills gaps and align its staff to achieve future programmatic goals.
Federal Aviation Administration 4. The Associate Administrator of AST should develop and document a plan for periodically assessing whether staff possess the necessary skills and competencies to achieve programmatic goals, such as annually administering a skills assessment survey. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In July 2020, AST officials told us they plan to assess employee skills and competencies on a 3-year cycle and that they will establish a process to do so by the end of 2020. We will continue to monitor AST's progress in implementing this recommendation.

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