House bill seeks to streamline oversight of commercial space activities

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WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee is expected to approve a bill that seeks to improve regulation of commercial space activities, but not without criticism from some within the industry.

The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, H.R. 2809, was formally introduced June 7 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee. The bill has eight other co-sponsors, including space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member active on space issues who remains a leading candidate to be named NASA administrator. The bill has bipartisan support and is expected to clear the committee during a June 8 markup and go to the full House.

The bill seeks to streamline the process of licensing for commercial remote sensing satellites, currently handled by an office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It also sets up a similar “certification” system for commercial payloads not otherwise licensed by the government, addressing an industry concern about a regulatory gap for “non-traditional” applications like satellite servicing, commercial space stations and lunar landers.

“The bill establishes a favorable legal and policy environment for free enterprise with maximum certainty and minimum burden for stakeholders,” said Smith in a statement June 7 announcing the bill’s introduction. “This enterprising bill provides an efficient, transparent, and streamlined structure for authorizing and supervising future space activities to create the path for future exploration of the final frontier.”

The bill is, in part, intended to address concerns in the remote sensing industry of long delays in the current licensing process. Under the bill, authority for licensing such spacecraft would be moved to the Office of Space Commerce, combining the existing office of the same name with the NOAA office that licenses remote sensing satellites. The office would have just 60 days from the receipt of a completed application to either issue a permit or deny the application, with a permit automatically granted if the office does not make a ruling at the end of the 60 days.

“We’ve had complaints” about how long it takes to get a license, said Babin in a May interview. “There have been folks who have complained about the length of time before they get permits: months and months, even years.”

The bill would also address what many in the industry perceive as a regulatory gap: no federal agency has oversight of in-space activities, beyond NOAA for commercial remote sensing systems and the Federal Communications Commission for communications satellites. Such oversight is needed, they believe, to comply with provisions of Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty that require countries to provide “authorization and continuing supervision” of activities carried out by its citizens in space.

“Years of uncertainty over which government agency has the responsibility to authorize and supervise commercial space activity has created a chilling effect in the industry, hindering capital formation and innovation,” Bridenstine said in the June 7 statement announcing the bill.

The bill would create a certification system for commercial spacecraft not already licensed, modeled on the same approach the bill provides for commercial remote sensing satellites. The Office of Space Commerce would again have 60 days to rule on an application, reviewing it for compliance with the country’s obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.

The bill’s approach, though, has critics in industry. Some are concerned about handing over authority to the Office of Space Commerce, which today has only a few employees and limited expertise on the wide range of potential types of spacecraft for which it would have oversight.

The office received only $800,000 in the fiscal year 2017 omnibus spending bill enacted last month. The administration’s 2018 budget request seeks $1.2 million for it, an increase primarily intended to support NOAA commercial weather programs. NOAA’s commercial remote sensing office, which would be combined with the Office of Space Committee, received $1.2 million in 2017 and would get the same amount in the 2018 budget proposal.

The bill seeks to address those concerns by authorizing $5 million for the office in fiscal year 2018. However, there is no guarantee that appropriators would provide that funding.

Other have raised questions about the ability of the office in the bill to consult with other government agencies when reviewing applications. Such interagency reviews are a common part of both NOAA’s existing commercial remote sensing licensing process as well as the launch licensing process by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. A draft of the bill circulated for discussion in May, though, appeared to lack any interagency review process.

A lack of a formal interagency review has led some to worry that the office may not be able to effectively review any issues a proposed spacecraft might have with both national security and international treaty compliance, issues usually examined by the Departments of Defense and State, respectively. The Defense Department declined to comment on the bill and the State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The version of the bill formally introduced does include language allowing the Office of Space Commerce to consult with other agencies, but stops short of explicitly requiring such a review. The ultimate decision regarding whether or not to approve a license, though, remains solely with the office.

The earlier draft of the bill also included a section requiring the president to submit a report assessing the Outer Space Treaty effectiveness, including the “benefits and drawbacks of withdrawing” from the treaty of proposing amendments to it. The version formally introduced does not include that language.

The Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has been looking into the Outer Space Treaty’s and whether it should be amended to reflect the current state of commercial space activities. At a May 23 hearing on the topic, though, lawyers and business executives recommended against making any changes to the 50-year-old treaty.