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Ross at launch
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (left) watches the March 1 Atlas 5 launch of the GOES-S weather satellite with United Launch Alliance president and CEO Tory Bruno. (credit: ULA)

The Secretary of (Space) Commerce

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Wilbur Ross is becoming a frequent visitor to the Kennedy Space Center.

Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, had never seen a launch in person prior to last month’s inaugural Falcon Heavy flight. Less than a month later, he was back at KSC to witness the launch of the GOES-S weather satellite on an Atlas 5 (NOAA, which operates the GOES series of geostationary orbit weather satellites, is part of the Commerce Department.) “I’m coming to think that space launches are a highly communicable disease for which there is no known cure,” he quipped shortly before the Atlas launch.

“We think it’s better to give commercialization of space a separate life, a more visible life, and a higher standing within the administration.”

In between those two launches, he came to KSC with the other members of the National Space Council for their second public meeting since the Trump Administration formally reestablished the council last June. That meeting resulted in recommendations that consolidated oversight of many commercial space activities outside of launch and reentry in the Commerce Department, including plans to elevate the obscure Office of Space Commerce from NOAA to a position under direct oversight of Secretary Ross.

Ross doesn’t have a background in the space industry — he became a multimillionare as a banker who restructured companies in a variety of other industries — but he’s shown an interest in the field, as illustrated by his recurring appearances at KSC. As an interview wound down in a KSC conference room shortly before the Atlas 5 launch, Ross asked a reporter how he got interested in space, and also sought recommendations for books on the space industry.

A condensed version of that interview follows, discussing the recent National Space Council meeting and regulatory reform efforts.

The National Space Council meeting here last month included a number of recommendations involving commercial space regulatory issues involving the Commerce Department. What are you doing now to carry those out?

We’re starting to make the moves that we can internally at Commerce. Like everything in government, it takes a little while to implement change. But it’s being very welcomed by the people involved. NOAA did a fine job with those activities, but it’s our purpose to expand them quite a lot, and eventually become a one-stop shop for space regulation. That kind of activity, that kind of rate of expansion, was something of a distraction for NOAA. NOAA has very important, major missions, so we think it’s better to give commercialization of space a separate life, a more visible life, and a higher standing within the administration.

NOAA had been the entity to which this office reported and to which the [commercial remote sensing] regulations had reported. So it had a combination of owning, operating, and launching satellites, and a bit of a regulatory function. We’re now separating the regulatory function out of it and putting it up into the Office of Space Commerce, which will report directly to me.

What is your approach to commercial space regulatory reform?

“So, my slogan is, the rate of regulatory change must accelerate until it can match the rate of technological change.”

What we’re trying to do is to make it easier for legitimate space activities to be conducted. Right now, if you think about it, it takes longer to get all of the regulatory approvals than it does to go from design to launch. That seems like a ridiculous pair of facts. We don’t think that the regulatory process should be the gating element of a launch. It should be the technology and the production of the equipment.

In remote sensing, there is a particular problem: the rules and regulations for remote sensing are more than 25 years old. Now think how different the space environment and the sensing environment is today from what it was 25 years ago. There’s no comparison whatsoever. So, my slogan is, the rate of regulatory change must accelerate until it can match the rate of technological change.

At the council meeting you mentioned you would soon be naming a director of the Office of Space Commerce. When will that happen?

As you know, there’s a process of security clearances and such that we have to go through. So it may very well be a couple of months before he comes on board.

What is the status of moving the Office of Space Commerce and Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office out of NOAA?

It is an administrative process. I’ve spoken with the people, the team leaders; they’re very excited about it. [NOAA Acting Administrator Tim Gallaudet] is very, very happy because he’s got his arms full as it is. NOAA has a lot of missions other than space, so he’s got a very full time job without space.

Just as we did with the tax laws to make US more corporation friendly, we’re going to try to do the same with the regulatory environment to make it more regulatory friendly: not to the point of endangering anybody, but there’s a lot of regulation that’s just there for the sake of being regulation, or is outdated and therefore is cumbersome by today’s standards. But also, the main thing is the speed of decision-making. For this office, decision-making will be its primary mission, and therefore there will be a lot of focus on speed of delivery of decision.

What discussions have you had with Congress about any legislation you need to carry out the planned regulatory reforms, including with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is working on a commercial space bill?

“For this office, decision-making will be its primary mission, and therefore there will be a lot of focus on speed of delivery of decision.”

As far as I can tell, there is no legislative resistance whatsoever. Sen. Cruz is a big ally of mine in this project. I’ve known him for quite a while, and he also sits on the overall Commerce Committee, which is our fundamental regulator and is the committee in Congress that passed my nomination. He thoroughly understands the issues, and we think we’ll have a very, very fruitful cooperation and collaboration with him.

How well is the National Space Council working so far?

I think it’s working very, very well. Vice President Pence is a very strong leader, very well organized, very knowledgeable about space, and [Executive Secretary Scott Pace] came out of the Office of Space Commerce in the Commerce Department some years ago. We have proper staffing there, very strong support from him, and he and President Trump are the ones who came up with the idea of doing the Space Council in the first place. So, first of all, we have total support at the top level of government. Within Commerce, it obviously has my total support as well. And, from everything that I can tell, it’s an area where there is no partisanship.

What’s next for the Space Council?

Well, in general it’s going to have quarterly meetings. Also, at the last meeting Pence appointed, and it was approved by the Space Council, a special committee of users. That’s a little bit unusual in government to have that kind of formal interaction with your user community. And we did it quite deliberately to send the message, just as we do in some other parts of Commerce, that we are here for the benefit, fundamentally, of the users. Our job is to be a facilitator, not a burden.