Merging commercial human spaceflight missions into the air traffic control (ATC) system is a growing concern within the nascent industry and the government bureaucracies that ultimately will be responsible for regulating it, particularly as the industry approaches sending its first passengers to space.

Virgin Galactic could begin suborbital human missions as early as this year, air-launching its SpaceShipTwo vehicle in a “hybrid” approach that combines aircraft and rockets. The company’s relatively short jaunts into space over the deserts of California and New Mexico should have minimal impact on ATC, but that will change as orbital commercial crew vehicles begin flying and spaceflight traffic begins to meet projections.

“To clear each launch we restricted hundreds of square miles of airspace,” retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton Jr. told the annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference last week. A former commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick AFB, Fla., Bolton is assistant FAA administrator in charge of setting up the NextGen air traffic control system.

“For a launch, the airplanes have to fly around the Gulf,” he said of his stint managing the Eastern Test Range at Patrick. “It adds minutes and miles to each flight, shuts everything down for hours. That’s great if there are maybe 40 launches a year. If the Taurus Group’s predictions are correct, we’ll have several launches a day in 2025. So we’ve got some challenges.”

Among the challenges listed by panelists at the FAA event will be handling hybrid launches like SpaceShipTwo, with separate FAA organizations overseeing the carrier aircraft and the spacecraft. Once orbital human spaceflight to the International Space Station and potentially other destinations begins (planned by NASA for 2017), the additional question of who is responsible for monitoring and deconflicting high-speed orbital traffic will grow more acute.

Satellite operators currently fuse their ephemera through voluntary participation in the industry-led Space Data Association, while the U.S. Air Force tracks objects down to about 10 cm in diameter and publishes their projected orbital paths. There is some cooperation between the two organizations, but no one is really in charge, and how classified spacecraft are handled is of course classified.

“It’s still a work in progress, to be honest, but I think we are actually making some progress,” said Pentagon space policy analyst Audrey Schafer, noting that while there isn’t a “routine” stream of data across the government/industry interface, “it’s one of the areas where we are actively working to improve the capability of the spaceflight community services that we provide.”

“We have been in dialogue with JSpOC [U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center, which tracks orbiting objects] and other entities,” said Ron Bush of Intelsat, who is the current chairman of the Space Data Association. “Our architecture is flexible to allow for this. We have ways and conops [concepts of operation] where we can take in sensitive data that obviously JSpOC has. Commercially sensitive data is what we’re using today.”

Other issues that panelists said remain to be worked out are “dovetailing” oversight of human spaceflight safety with aircraft safety regulations, and handling the burgeoning cubesat population on orbit, which can be at the lower limit of the Air Force tracking capability and typically lack transponders. Bolton said some of the ongoing NextGen work will make it easier to tackle the problems, including consolidation of the FAA’s 17 different ATC voice systems into a single system, and introducing digital communication between controllers and aircraft.

“These two improvements alone will put us miles to the good down the path of having the ability to shrink the coverage zones that you need” for launches, he said.