Commerce to take responsibility for space traffic management under new policy

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COLORADO SPRINGS — A new space traffic management policy announced by Vice President Mike Pence April 16 would give the Commerce Department, and not the FAA, responsibility for providing space situational awareness data to satellite operators.

During a keynote address at the 34th Space Symposium here, Pence said the draft policy, developed by the National Space Council, is intended to address the growing number of satellites and space debris, and the increased burden placed on the Defense Department to provide warnings to satellite operators of potential collisions.

“The National Space Council has developed the first comprehensive space traffic management policy, which we will soon be sending to the president’s desk for his approval,” Pence said.

Space situational awareness data is currently provided by the Defense Department through organizations like the Joint Space Operations Center. The new policy, Pence said, would free up the military “to focus on protecting and defending our national security assets in space” by giving those responsibilities to the Commerce Department.

“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,” Pence said.

The policy will also support partnerships between the government and private organizations for sharing space situational awareness data, technical guidelines and safety standards. “That will help minimize debris and avoid satellite collisions during launch and while in orbit,” he said.

The concept of moving the responsibility for providing safety information like collision warnings from the Defense Department to another agency has been studied by government agencies for some time. However, prior to this announcement, the FAA was considered the frontrunner to take over that work.

This would not be the first time that Commerce has taken over a potential regulatory role once considered for the FAA. At the National Space Council’s February meeting, the council approved several recommendations, including those that would give Commerce responsibility for licensing “non-traditional” space applications, something the FAA had long been advocating to handle.

The recommendations from the February meeting, Pence said, will be signed by President Trump into binding policy “in the near future.” Those recommendations also include streamlined launch licensing, spectrum coordination and a review of export control policy.

Pence announced that retired Adm. James Ellis, a former head of U.S. Strategic Command, would serve as chairman of the new Users Advisory Group that will support the National Space Council. That group was announced at the February council meeting, but has yet to formally start work.

The speech in general focused on broad policy themes and recounted the previous space policy accomplishments of the administration. Pence did not go into details about the new space traffic management policy, including issues such as how the shift of space situational awareness responsibility to the Commerce Department would be funded.

In the speech, Pence thanked NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who is retiring this month after three decades at NASA, for his service to the agency. “His leadership will be missed when he retires at the end of this month,” Pence said, as the audience offered a standing ovation.

Pence also expressed his support for the nomination of Jim Bridenstine to become NASA administrator. Bridenstine’s nomination is still pending in the Senate, but Pence said “we’re hopeful very soon” he will be confirmed.