Commerce Department pressing ahead with commercial space regulatory reform


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Backed by a set of recommendations endorsed by the National Space Council, the Secretary of Commerce says he is moving ahead with efforts to improve the regulatory environment for commercial space.

In an interview here shortly before the March 1 launch of the GOES-S weather satellite on an Atlas 5, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said he has support within his own department, and elsewhere in government, to start enacting reforms that would make the department a “one-stop shop” for most commercial space regulatory activities.

“What we’re trying to do is to make it easier for legitimate space activities to be conducted,” he said. “My slogan is, the rate of regulatory change must accelerate until it can match the rate of technological change.”

At the latest meeting of the National Space Council Feb. 21, Ross put forward a number of recommendations that were adopted by the Council, including consolidating the Office of Space Commerce with the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office. The combined office would be moved from within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to directly under the Secretary of Commerce.

That effort is underway, Ross said. “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,” he said. That includes setting up the combined office in the main headquarters building of the Commerce Department.

Ross and Bruno
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (left) watching the March 1 launch of NOAA’s GOES-S weather satellite on an Atlas 5 with United Launch Alliance President and CEO Tory Bruno. Credit: ULA

Ross also said at the Council meeting that he would soon name a new director for the Office of Space Commerce, which has lacked permanent leadership for an extended period. In the interview, Ross said an announcement was not imminent because of ongoing reviews. “It may very well be a couple of months before he comes on board,” he said.

Moving the offices out of NOAA, he said, was not a reflection on how that agency, part of the Commerce Department, operated them. “It is not meant to be any kind of a negative on NOAA,” he said. “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.”

He added that Timothy Gallaudet, the acting administrator of NOAA, welcomed the move of the offices from NOAA. “He’s very, very happy because he’s got his arms full as it is,” Ross said.

Other reform efforts will require legislation, and the recommendations call on the Secretary of Commerce to develop legislative proposals for commercial remote sensing regulatory reform and to establish an “Under Secretary of Space Commerce” position.

A House bill introduced last year, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, proposes some commercial remote sensing regulatory reforms, while the Senate is working on its version of commercial space legislation. The Senate effort is led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Ross said he didn’t anticipate any problems with getting Congress to back those proposed reforms. “As far as I can tell, there is no legislative resistance whatsoever,” he said. “We know Sen. Cruz very well. He thoroughly understands the issues, and we think we’ll have a very, very fruitful cooperation and collaboration with him.”

Another activity the Commerce Department will be doing to promote space, Ross said, is making it part of the department’s SelectUSA Investment Summit in June, an event designed to promote foreign investment in the United States. “This year we’re going to dedicate a portion of it to space,” he said, to illustrate in part the regulatory advantages to doing space-related business in the country.

The goal of the reform efforts, he said, is to streamline space regulations to eliminate those that are outdated or otherwise unnecessary. That’s a particular issue in commercial remote sensing, where companies have often had to wait many months — in extreme cases, years — on government reviews of their license applications.

“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,” he argued. “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.”

While those efforts have won widespread support from companies and organizations, a separate initiative backed by Ross has generated some criticism in the aerospace industry. On March 1, President Trump announced plans to impose tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, a proposal that Ross has endorsed.

That’s raised concerns about increased costs for users of those materials, including aerospace companies, as well as the threat of retaliatory tariffs on American products by foreign governments.

“This is going to impact companies big and small in the aerospace and defense world,” said Eric Fanning, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, in a March 2 interview on CNBC.

“More importantly, we’re concerned about retaliation,” he added. “The aerospace and defense industry generates the largest net surplus in the manufacturing sector: over $86 billion a year. These companies thrive on the exports of their products.”