Foust Forward | The space community’s shifting policy expectations

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the April 23, 2018 issue.

Space Symposium is one of the biggest events in the space community each year, offering a rare confluence of leaders in commercial, civil government and military space. This year, there was an even higher level of interest in the event than usual, primarily because of one speaker: Vice President Mike Pence, who gave a keynote April 16.

Since Pence was making a special trip to Colorado Springs for the speech, many attendees expected some kind of major policy announcement, with speculation ranging from another development related to NASA’s space exploration plans to clarification of the administration’s interest in a military space force.

They came away disappointed. Pence’s address, running a little more than 20 minutes, was largely a recap of the White House’s interest in space and achievements to date, like reconstituting the National Space Council. The one major bit of news was the announcement of a draft space traffic management policy that would transfer some responsibilities for providing collision warnings from the Defense Department to Commerce.

There was some foreshadowing that Pence would not make major news in Colorado. A few days earlier, at an event in Washington, National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace was asked about how big of an announcement to expect in Pence’s speech. Pace dryly responded, “All policy announcements are important.”

Pace is right in many respects: space traffic management is an important issue as the number of satellites and the amount of space debris grows. Reducing the workload of the Air Force by giving another agency the responsibility to warn civil and commercial satellite operators of potential collisions has been a topic of study for years.

Nonetheless, many left the speech underwhelmed, expecting more — or more important — announcements than the space traffic management news and overview of the accomplishments by the administration to date. Was that really it?

That reaction shows how much the space industry’s expectations have shifted over the last 15 months. In prior administrations, both Democratic and Republican, discussions of space by the president or vice president were exceedingly rare: a photo op here, a passing reference in a speech there, and perhaps just one address dedicated to space in an entire administration.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, space has become far more prominent. The president has signed space-related bills and executive orders in White House ceremonies while the vice president has toured NASA centers, Air Force bases and commercial space factories. Even Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who had no obvious background in space prior to this administration, now regularly talks about commercial space and regulatory reform in interviews.

For all the appearances and announcements, though, there’s still a lot of work to be done. While the space policy directive signed by Trump in December directs NASA to return humans to the moon, the space agency is just beginning to outline a long-term strategy for doing so. Only now does NASA have a leader in place after the Senate confirmed Jim Bridenstine April 19. The agency’s deputy administrator position is still vacant, and the White House has yet to nominate someone to fill it.

Even smaller policy efforts are moving slowly. Pence revealed in his speech that the policy recommendations made by the National Space Council at its February meeting, including commercial remote-sensing and launch licensing reform, are still pending formal approval by the White House, although he said he expected that soon. And the council’s Users Advisory Group, announced at the meeting, has yet to hold its first official meeting.

So, rather than complaining about a lack of policy pronouncements, the space community might be better served by helping make progress on the ones that have already been made. Announcements are good, but achievements are better.


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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.