Muddling through space traffic management

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This commentary originally appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

“Space traffic management” is the cyber security of the space world. It is a hugely important public policy issue that underpins the successful future expansion of space activities, yet there is no agreement on its definition.

Experts continue to propose alternative terms that may be more technically precise, but consistently fail to catch on with policymakers or the public. And at its core, space traffic management is a “super wicked” public policy problem that involves balancing an indefinable set of technical, legal, and economic variables; conflicting interests and worldviews of many stakeholders; and a complex political environment with diffuse responsibilities and authorities. But with estimates of 16,000 or more satellites on the drawing board to be launched in the next decade, it is not a problem we can continue to kick down the road.

As the Trump administration’s newly revived National Space Council begins to outline the major space policy challenges it needs to tackle, space traffic management should be near the top of the list. All of the Trump administration’s stated goals for space — strengthening national security, expanding space exploration, promoting commercial space development, and renewing America’s leadership in the international community — rely on improved knowledge of what’s in orbit and developing more efficient ways to safely and sustainably manage the growing number of objects.

Like other super wicked public policy problems, there will be no one single solution or grand political initiative that “solves” space traffic management. Rather, progress is likely to come via a series of small steps that incrementally improve the overall situation. Incrementalism, or the science of “muddling through” as its was first proposed by Charles Lindblom, acknowledges that bounded rationality prevents using a perfectly rational approach to solving complex public policy problems. When the apple is too big to coherently describe, let alone understand, eating it one bite at time is the only viable approach. With that in mind, the following “bites” need to be made by the Trump administration and Congress to make progress on space traffic management.

First, there needs to be a decision on whether the U.S. military will continue to provide all of the space situational awareness (SSA) data and services for the world, a task they took on after the 2009 collision between the Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 satellites. But the growing demands and complexity of the safety of spaceflight mission are increasingly competing for resources with the national security mission of the U.S. military, as multiple senior leaders have pointed out. Instead, it’s time to separate the civil SSA functions for safety of spaceflight from the core national security SSA functions, and assign the former to a civil federal agency. The challenge in doing so is deciding which agency should take on the mission, and whether it should be an existing one or newly created. The decision involves balancing available expertise, making budget tradeoffs, resolving ideological debates over the priority of promoting industry versus regulating it, and acknowledging that the U.S. military can no longer control access to SSA data.

Second, there needs to be a decision on how such a civil SSA entity will leverage private sector capabilities for its mission. The U.S. military has historically used government-owned-and-operated radars and telescopes and government-built software, but over the last several years the private sector has greatly expanded what it can bring to the table. A growing number of companies can and do now provide SSA data, software, and services that rival, and in some cases exceed, what the government can provide, and often at much lower costs. The civil SSA agency should leverage these private sector capabilities as much as possible, but the U.S. government also needs to determine the inherently governmental functions it cannot delegate to the private sector. The United States has national interests and international responsibilities that only a government entity can secure.

Third, there needs to be a link between civil SSA and the ongoing efforts to modernize U.S. government oversight of private sector space activities. Over the last few years, Congress and the Obama administration took positive steps to reduce policy and regulatory restrictions on commercial space activities and provide more certainty to new and innovative missions. This progress should be continued, and should include giving the agencies with oversight authority more access to SSA data on what is actually happening in space. Doing so will help create policies and regulations that are informed by, and responsive to, real-world activities, and also improve the ability to ensure the private sector follows through on its post-mission disposal and operating requirements. A federal agency that combines civil SSA data, oversight authorities, and responsibility for managing the space environment would be best suited for implementing a comprehensive strategy for the long-term sustainability of the space environment.

Fourth, there needs to be an appropriate international component. As many commentators have pointed out, space is inherently international and beyond the sovereign boundaries of any one country. Some also argue that is why space traffic management should start with creating a space version of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), perhaps through a new international agreement or treaty.

However, the reality is that ICAO was created to resolve differences between national regulatory frameworks and relies on national administrations to implement and enforce its standards. Thus, it is extremely unlikely an “ICAO for space” would be successful before the existence of any national regulatory frameworks for space traffic management.

At this stage, the United States should be talking closely with other spacefaring countries about space traffic management and sharing its plans in international fora such as the United Nations, with an eye towards developing a national system that can be extended into an international framework in the future.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, the United States needs to determine what principles it wants to promote internationally as the foundation of space governance for the future. During the start of the Space Age in the 1950s, the United States enacted a concerted policy effort to develop the principles that would best serve its national interests, and a very successful diplomatic and public campaign that enshrined those principles in the treaties that form the foundation of international space law today.

However, the evolution and expansion of global space activities over the last 60 years has highlighted gaps in the application of the existing principles, and areas where new principles need to be defined. As space becomes an increasingly “normalized” domain of human activity like air, land, and maritime domains, the United States once again needs to determine the governance principles that will best serve its interests and play a leadership role in the global dialogue to debate and establish those principles. A key part of this discussion should include the private sector, and the role it should play in both helping establish and enforce future governance principles.

Even one bite at a time, muddling through space traffic management will not be easy. The Obama administration began an interagency process to resolve these issues in 2010, but was unable to reach consensus on a policy by the time it left office, nor was it able to convince Congress to modify existing authorities and budgets for civil SSA. Yet, the Obama administration laid important groundwork in raising awareness on the importance of space traffic management, and identifying the key policy challenges and obstacles.

It is now up to the Trump administration, and the National Space Council, to pick up the apple and start eating.

Brian Weeden is the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the long-term sustainable use of space for benefits on Earth. He is a former U.S. Air Force officer and serves on the Board of Advisers for Chandah Space Technologies.