So Alonso and other research teams at the FAA’s Center for Excellence in Space Transportation are hard at work crunching numbers and simulating flights, trying to estimate space and air traffic levels in the near future – all to determine how to most equitably divvy up the national airspace. The timing is good for space traffic control, because the FAA is in the midst of a $40 billion transition from the ground-based, radar-based air traffic control system that exists today to a satellite-based system called NextGen. GPS units in planes will update air traffic control once per second, rather than once every several seconds, as radar does. And in the event of a crisis, like an exploding rocket and ensuing cloud of flaming debris, air traffic controllers using NextGen will be able to send electronic re-routing information directly to the plane’s flight management program, rather than requiring instructions to be given verbally over the radio.
Alonso and his colleagues have access to NASA's special airspace simulation tool, called FACET (graph below)"It allows us to run back a day in the life of the air-traffic control system," says Alonso.
So Alonso has been running tens of thousands of simulations, taking into account weather variables, air traffic, and frequency of space launches. He models different distributions of flights when there might be a mere one launch a month, or as many as 6 orbital launches per week from different locations like New Mexico, California, Florida, and Colorado. In fact, the FAA has already licensed 8 different locations around the country as spaceports, and is reviewing applications for more. Not all of these spaceport aspirants will survive, but to model the future, Alonso has to create data for each of them.