This answer to Why is Rocketlab working with a Federal Aviation Administration to investigate an early 2nd stage engine shutdown? says

The Federal Aviation Administration is the United States' Federal Government organization responsible for every US vehicle that flies. The Electron flies, and it is launched by a US company, hence, it falls under the jurisdiction of the FAA, more precisely under the jurisdiction of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

I left a comment there that says:

It must end somewhere, would a Rocketlab third kick stage or a Photon also require consultation with the FAA?

but lets take this a step further.

Question: If The FAA is the United States' Federal Government organization responsible for every US vehicle that flies is really accurate as written, did the FAA then license the Ingenuity helicopter to fly on Mars?

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    $\begingroup$ There are jurisdictional specifics on this but... hobby vehicles of low mass flown within a limited envelope (below a few hundred feet AGL and clear of any controlled airspace such as around airports) don't require any form of licensing. Apart from the fact that Ingenuity isn't being flown within FAA jurisdiction (or that of any other national agency), and has more in common with a hobby vehicle than anything else, it doesn't seem reasonable that it should require licensing, especially as licensing is about managing risks/hazards to people and property. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ I find it difficult to believe that jurisdiction is based on location of manufacture rather than operation. An Airbus operated in the US falls under the jurisdiction of the FAA. A Boeing plane operated entirely within Europe does not. That's basic common sense. $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2021 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ The quoted passage is a mis-statement of fact. The FAA has no jurisdiction here in Canada, regardless of an aircraft's location of manufacture. We have our own authority governing our own airspace. Boeing or Airbus alike, regardless of nationality of registry, must satisfy Transport Canada requirements to operate in Canadian airspace. I think there are international agreements (FAI) recognizing foreign licensing of pilots and aircraft, and FAA make be looked upon as a benchmark, but it has no authority outside US airspace. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ I think to put it more succinctly, FAA jurisdiction would cover US airspace, pilots of US citizenship, and US-registered aircraft, regardless of manufacturing origin. This obviously covers foreign-licensed pilots and foreign-registered aircraft while operating in US airspace. International/reciprocal agreement with counterpart agencies in other countries would recognize foreign licensing credentials and safety standards. A similar situation would exist in any other country. AFAIK, Mars doesn't fall under any national jurisdiction. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ They did not bother getting a Martian Aviation Administration license, no. Typical carpetbaggers... $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2021 at 0:06

3 Answers 3



According to the FAA itself, licensing is for private individuals and companies, and applies only to the launch and re-entry parts of the flight:

  • An FAA license is required for any launch or reentry, or the operation of any launch or reentry site, by U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, or by any individual or entity within the United States.

But no FAA license is needed by the government itself. This would include Ingenuity.

  • An FAA license is not required for space activities the government carries out for the government, such as some NASA or Department of Defense launches.

The list of FAA licenses for space activities also has no entry for NASA or JPL. However, the list includes the usual commercial space launch companies:

  • Orbital Sciences
  • Lockheed-Martin
  • S7 Sea Launch (doesn't even launch from U.S. territory!)
  • SpaceX (as Space Exploration Technologies)
  • United Launch Alliance
  • Rocket Lab (one of its licenses is to launch from New Zealand)
  • Astra Space
  • Firefly Aerospace
  • Virgin Galactic
  • Blue Origin
  • Exos Aerospace
  • Virgin Orbit

The FAA list of spaceports does not include any site on Mars, even though the ICAO gave Jezero crater the airport code JZRO.

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    $\begingroup$ FAA licensing does apply to (non-military) government agencies, just not for space operations. NASA and even the FAA itself have FAA registrations for their aircraft and must operate them in accordance with FAA regulations. Only military aircraft are exempt for non-space operations. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ Wait, so an individual who is an Accidental American, but spent 99% or more of their life in their real country, would technically require the FAA to approve them to become a pilot, even after fulfilling all of the actual requirements in the country where the training, licensing and flights would take place? What sheer, unmitigated, arrogance. $\endgroup$ Commented May 18, 2021 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal: That is hardly surprising. Accidental Americans (and indeed, all Americans) are required to file federal income tax returns on worldwide income, which burdens a far larger segment of the population much more frequently than "the FAA has to sign off on your pilot's license." $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Commented May 18, 2021 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal no, that's not the case, tons of US citizens pilot planes without an FAA license in other countries $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 0:40

The FAA is not responsible for every US vehicle as that other answer alluded to.

FAA licensing covers pilots, commercial aircraft, aircraft operators, and commercial spacecraft Earth launches and entries. In layman terms, it does not cover spacecraft operations beyond the atmospheric of Earth.

Government licensing is not required for government projects such as NASA's Mars missions. Government agencies have their own requirements. Sometimes the FAA licensing mirrors what the government agencies are already doing, as it has for public safety for Earth launches and entries.

Perseverance, and Ingenuity, are US government vehicles operated by JPL for NASA. NASA has its own standards for mission reliability, public safety (which don't apply on Mars) and microbe planetary protection (which do apply on Mars). Ingenuity is a high-risk, (relatively) low-cost technology demonstration payload for the Perseverance mission. This means reliability requirements are tailored, with project management approval, to keep the costs low with a reasonable likelihood of success. I am not aware what Ingenuity's reliability estimate was before its arrival at Mars. After multiple successful flights, Ingenuity's engineering and flight teams should be proud of their work!

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    $\begingroup$ Forget operations beyond the Earth. The FAA is not responsible for operations outside the USA. There are several privately owned planes that are illegal to fly within the US that are flown in other countries where their governing bodies issue licenses. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 8:08
  • $\begingroup$ @slebetman That is incorrect; read DrSheldon's answer. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2021 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica That is the FCC, not the FAA. And that licence covers the communication with corresponding earth equipment, which has its allocated radio frequencies. Again, Mars-Mars communication is out of jurisdiction for FCC too. $\endgroup$ Commented May 22, 2021 at 7:07
  • $\begingroup$ @ErkinAlpGüney Oh my god. Thanks for the correction. I'll delete the comment. $\endgroup$ Commented May 22, 2021 at 10:25

Out of jurisdiction

Per outer space treaty, Mars is not in the jurisdiction of any US Government Agency.

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    $\begingroup$ While this is true, it's a bit more complicated than that. The FAA does regulate U.S. companies even when they launch outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Orbital Sciences has some launches from the Marshall Islands, Sea Launch from the Pacific Ocean, and Rocket Lab sometimes from New Zealand. All three are licensed by the FAA to do this. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 2:17
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DrSheldon But it's the launch/recovery from Earth that they get the licenses for, not the operations on Mars. This answer is correct that FAA has no jurisdiction on Mars, regardless of whether the vehicle is government or private. Launch/recovery operations aren't governed by the Outer Space Treaty, but rather (I would assume) by the Chicago Convention which grants some degree of (often overlapping) jurisdiction to the civil aviation authorities of both the flag nation and the nation(s) in whose airspace the vehicle is operating. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 16:39

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