Foust Forward | For commercial space, a question of forgiveness versus permission

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the April 9, 2018 issue.

A phrase commonly linked to Silicon Valley startups is “move fast and break things,” whether those things are the old ways of doing business or rules and regulations for doing so. An older saying, with a similar sentiment, is, “It’s better to seek forgiveness than get permission.”

That philosophy seems to have rubbed off on the space industry. In early March, the magazine IEEE Spectrum reported that Swarm Technologies, one such Silicon Valley startup, had launched four tiny “SpaceBee” satellites — each one-quarter the size of a single-unit cubesat — on an Indian rocket in January. The problem? Those satellites launched even though the FCC had not granted authorization for an experimental communications license for them, citing concerns the satellites were too small to be tracked.

Swarm Technologies has remained silent in the weeks since the news broke, making no public comment and not responding to media inquiries. The FCC revoked an authorization it previously granted for four more satellites, which were to launch later this month on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. The rest of the industry condemned the unauthorized launch, and launch providers said they would take additional measures in the future to ensure their customers have all their required approvals.

A few weeks later, a much bigger company found itself in regulatory trouble. On the March 30 launch of 10 Iridium Next satellites on a Falcon 9, SpaceX had to cut off live video from the rocket shortly before the upper stage and payload reached orbit. The company said at the time that “restrictions” imposed by NOAA kept them from broadcasting.

It turned out SpaceX did not have a commercial remote-sensing license that is required for broadcasting images of the Earth from orbit. NOAA officials said at an advisory committee meeting a few days later that SpaceX applied for a license just four days before the launch and, while the agency was able to expedite most elements of the application to allow the launch to proceed on schedule, it couldn’t give approval for public release of the images.

In SpaceX’s case, the violation of regulations is far less clear-cut than Swarm’s FCC transgression. SpaceX and other launch providers had long placed cameras on their rockets capable of transmitting images while in space, often through payload separation, but none had been licensed before. NOAA officials claimed they simply weren’t aware of those prior launch broadcasts, and the tiny office that licenses commercial remote-sensing systems didn’t have the resources to track them down.

That office, though, probably couldn’t avoid noticing February’s inaugural Falcon Heavy launch. The mission broadcast video from orbit for several hours, showing Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit-wearing mannequin in the front seat and the Earth frequently in the background. That might explain why company sources say they were only recently informed by NOAA that they needed a commercial remote-sensing license.

Fortunately, little harm has been done, other than perhaps to Swarm’s business prospects. The SpaceBee satellites, it turns out, can be tracked in orbit despite their small size, according to commercial space situation awareness company LeoLabs. SpaceX’s NOAA licensing issue is unlikely to hurt the company in the long-term and could even further the cause of commercial remote sensing regulatory reform.

The incidents, though, may result in more scrutiny of space companies by these and other regulators, like the FAA, even as the White House backs efforts to update and streamline rules governing commercial space activities. As the industry’s ambitions grow, from developing megaconstellations to human spaceflight, so do the risks, as well as the consequences of not complying with regulations. In those cases, if something goes wrong forgiveness will be much harder to come by than permission.

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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.