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Ross at 34th Space Symposium
Attendees at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs listen to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross discuss his department’s new commercial space regulatory issues April 17. (credit: Space Foundation)

Space commerce traffic management

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In recent years, the Office of Space Commerce had been an almost forgotten part of the federal space bureaucracy, even among those immersed in policy debates. The tiny office lacked the regulatory mandate of the FAA, FCC, or even NOAA, whose Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office licensed commercial imaging satellites.

That has changed remarkably quickly. In February, the National Space Council approved recommendations that would give the office new responsibility for oversight of “non-traditional” commercial space activities not currently regulated by other agencies, and also combine it with CRSRA, turning it into a “one-stop shop for space commerce,” in the words of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (see “Making space regulations great again”, The Space Review, February 26, 2018).

The idea of transferring the responsibility of providing such warnings is not new. But most earlier studies focused on handing that work over to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, rather than to the Commerce Department.

The administration, it seems, is interested in expanding the office’s mandate even more. In a speech at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 16, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Space Council had also developed a draft of a new space traffic management (STM) policy. That policy wound transfer responsibility for providing some space situational awareness services, like providing warnings of potential collisions to civil and commercial satellite operators, from the Air Force to Commerce.

“This new policy directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense, so that our military leaders can focus on protecting and defending our national security assets in space,” Pence said, the only major policy announcement in a speech that was largely a recap of the administration’s achievements in the field to date.

The idea of transferring the responsibility of providing such warnings is not new: it had been under study for the last few years as a way to allow the Air Force to focus on its military responsibilities rather than be a “space traffic cop.” But, most of those earlier studies had focused on handing that work over to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, rather than to the Commerce Department.

Commerce, at least, seems interested and willing to take on that responsibility. “The department stands ready to work with other executive branch agencies, and the private sector, to develop an STM strategy that creates benchmark standards for the entire world,” said Ross, who spoke the next day at Space Symposium.

Ross, in his speech, cited the work that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the Commerce Department, performs in developing standards in collaboration with industry as one way the department can forge those “benchmark standards” for space traffic management. Commerce, he said, also planned to organize an international space regulatory conference by next January to hear from global experts on the issue.

He didn’t discuss in the speech details about how that transfer will take place, though. In an interview with reporters at the conference a day earlier, hours after Pence’s speech, Ross said he’s had initial discussions with Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson on how that transfer might take place, suggesting it would be an extended process with “baby steps” just starting to be made.

“What we worked out in concept is a transitional period,” he said. “This is not going to be an abrupt switch-throwing, where one day it’s DOD and the next day it’s Commerce.” In that transition, the Air Force would continue to provide collision warnings while the Commerce Department built up its capabilities to analyze Air Force data to provide its own conjunction assessments. Commerce, he said, would also be able to use other sources of data in addition to that provided by the Air Force, including from commercial and international partners, to aid in that effort.

“What we worked out in concept is a transitional period,” Ross said. “This is not going to be an abrupt switch-throwing, where one day it’s DOD and the next day it’s Commerce.”

Ross didn't estimate how long that transition period would take, but downplayed its cost. “We’re talking small millions of dollars for budget,” he said in the interview. “It’s not going to be something that breaks the camel’s back.” Many outside experts, including those who previously studied plans to transfer STM responsibilities to the FAA, suggested that this transition effort might cost tens of hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out, as well as millions of dollars a year to perform that work after the transition is complete.

The Office of Space Commerce today has a budget of just $1.2 million a year, with the CRSRA office—to be combined with the Office of Space Commerce—receiving $1.8 million. The office is also still without a permanent director, although Ross said a new director should be named in the near future.

As Commerce takes on space traffic management responsibilities, it’s also working to address commercial remote sensing regulatory reform. At the February meeting of the National Space Council, the department was tasked with developing reforms to streamline licensing of such satellites, a task Ross said in a subsequent interview he was eager to do (see “The Secretary of (Space) Commerce”, The Space Review, March 12, 2018).

Prior to meeting with reporters at the Space Symposium, Ross and several other department officials held a roundtable meeting with executives of several companies that are either in the commercial remote sensing business or have had to deal with the CRSRA office because their plans require a license from the office, such as satellite servicing missions equipped with cameras to track other spacecraft, in the process also taking images of the Earth.

“What we’re here today really is to hear from you. We would like to know what are the biggest regulatory problems you’re facing,” Ross said at that meeting, which was also open to a few reporters. “This should be a no-holds-barred complaint session.”

The companies in attendance went around the table discussed those problems, although perhaps, given the semi-public nature of the meeting, were more circumspect than the “no-holds-barred” request from Ross. Some complained about timelines for getting commercial remote sensing licenses and a lack of transparency in the licensing process, while others, particularly those in new applications like satellite servicing, said that evolving rules made it hard for them to know what licenses they needed.

Some attendees were in the unusual position of asking for more regulation, or at least more resources to implement current regulation. “I would really implore you to give it a proper budget,” said Robbie Schingler, co-founder of Planet, of the department’s commercial remote sensing regulators. “The office should not just have oversight over things, they should have insight into what’s coming and foresight in order to create good policies.”

“I love your phrase that we should have insight as well as oversight,” Ross responded. “That will be one of our objectives. I just wish I had thought to articulate it that way.”

Ross worked that insight/oversight language into his speech the next day, which, besides discussing space traffic management, also addressed commercial remote sensing regulatory reform.

That reform, he said, would provide different levels of review to satellites based on their capabilities, he suggested, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of current regulations. “We apply the same level of interagency scrutiny to a high school cubesat as we do to a billion-dollar asset designed for our intelligence community,” he said. “This is silly, and it will stop.”

“This is a perfect example of how commercial activity in space is outpacing government regulations,” Ross said of SpaceX’s NOAA license issue. “No more.”

Ross had new ammunition to make his case for reform, in the case of SpaceX. On March 30, the company announced during its webcast of a Falcon 9 launch of ten Iridium Next satellites that it would end the live feed from the launch vehicle shortly before reaching orbit, citing only “NOAA restrictions.” NOAA said later that day that such broadcasts required a commercial remote sensing license because the Earth was visible.

NOAA officials, at an advisory group meeting the following week, said they had only become aware of such broadcasts during launches, even though they have been a routine part of SpaceX and other launches for years. Many in the industry suspect that the February Falcon Heavy launch, where SpaceX broadcast video from the rocket’s upper stage and attached Tesla sports car for several hours, attracting the attention of millions of people, was the trigger for this chain of events.

Ross, in his Space Symposium speech, used that event as an example of the need for regulatory reform, since the Earth images broadcast by such launches are typically very low resolution and pose no national security hazard. “This is a perfect example of how commercial activity in space is outpacing government regulations. No more,” he said.

There is a limit to what the Commerce Department can do to fix those regulations now, since the requirement for licenses is in law. One of the recommendations from the February Space Council meeting was for the department to craft a “legislative proposal” to implement its desired changes.

Congress, though, had already been acting on that. Last year, several members of the House introduced the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which includes both commercial remote sensing reform as well as giving the Office of Space Commerce the authority to provide “certifications” for space objects not currently licensed by other agencies, in order to meet requirements under the Outer Space Treaty to provide authorization and continuing supervision of space activities.

The bill cleared the House Science Committee last June but languished for months before finally being taken up by the full House last week, although with several changes. One of them includes giving the president the ability to provide a one-time 60-day extension to the 90-day review period for commercial remote sensing license applications if there’s a need “to further evaluate the national security implications of the application.” Under current law, NOAA has 120 days to review license applications, but in some cases those reviews have extended for months or even years because of interagency reviews.

The change appears to address concerns that, under the bill’s original form, defense agencies might not have enough time to review license applications, which could lead them to deny the applications. (The bill’s language provides for automatic approval after 90 days if the Office of Space Commerce neither explicitly approves nor denies an application.)

“Since the markup, I was pleased to see additions to the bill which ensure the proper balance with the defense community to ensure the Department of Defense has the proper input into remote sensing applications,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) during a brief debate about the bill on the House floor.

Proponents, like House Science Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), argued the bill will provide a “booster rocket” to commercial space ventures by ending regulatory uncertainty. “The Space Commerce Act remedies this situation by establishing a new, novel legal and policy framework that unleashes American free enterprise and business, assures conformity with Outer Space Treaty obligations and guarantees that the US will lead the world in commercial space activities throughout the 21st century.”

While the bill cleared the House on a voice vote, without any members openly opposed to the bill, its future remains uncertain. The Senate is working on its own commercial space bill that is unlikely to be a one-for-one match to the House bill, and the Commerce Department will weigh in with its regulatory proposal. Any bill will likely need unanimous support in the Senate to win passage, and later be reconciled with the House bill—all by the end of the year, or else a new Congress will have to start over next year.

The Commerce Department, in the meantime, will need to staff up its Office of Space Commerce and deal with its new regulatory responsibilities. Long before it’s able to take on space traffic management work, it will have to manage the congested traffic of space regulatory issues.