New commercial space legislation unlikely this year


WASHINGTON — After passing the most comprehensive commercial space legislation in years in 2015, officials expect to spend this year preparing and reviewing reports required by that law rather than taking up new legislation.

In a speech Feb. 2 at the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here, the head of the FAA’s space office said his staff will be busy this year working on several reports mandated by the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which became law in November.

The act “asks for 12 different reports to be prepared and delivered to Congress over the next 12 months,” said FAA associate administrator George Nield, of which six are the responsibility of his office. The other six are assigned to other government agencies such as NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, he added, “but the topics they cover will certainly impact our office and the work that we do.”

The reports, like the bill itself, span a wide range of topics, from streamlining the commercial launch licensing process and the development of industry consensus standards to implementation of the act’s provision that grants U.S. citizens rights to resources they extract from the moon or other celestial bodies.

Another report required by the act examines the creation of an “improved framework” for space traffic management, a task currently handled by the Defense Department. In recent years the FAA has shown an interest in taking on responsibilities of identifying potential satellite collisions and notifying operators, which Nield reiterated at the conference.

“Both the FAA and the DOD are in agreement that this would be a relatively straightforward operation, and we would propose to get started on transitioning that responsibility as soon as we are given permission to do so,” Nield said. He added that such a transition would require additional but “relatively modest” resources for his office.

That proposal has the support of a key member of Congress. “The DOD is not the right place for that,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member of the House Armed Services and Science Committees, in a speech at the conference. “I believe the FAA ought to be that agency.”

Others, though, are taking a wait-and-see approach regarding who should be responsible for space traffic management, awaiting the report on the subject. “We’re trying to stay open-minded. The analogs with air traffic management only go so far,” said Nick Cummings, staff director of the Senate Commerce space subcommittee, in a panel discussion at the conference. He said that, in his opinion, there wasn’t “any predisposition” among committee members towards any particular solution.

The same is true for several other issues raised by last year’s act and the reports it requires. “I think we’re waiting on some of those reports from various elements of the executive branch,” said Bailey Edwards, policy director for aviation, science and space on the Senate Commerce Committee. “We’ll know more when we see those reports.”

Another complicating factor for following up on the act is the limited time available in Congress this election year. “There’s a lot to chew on, and frankly not a lot of time,” said Tom Hammond, staff director of the House space subcommittee. “There’s a lot that we’re going to have to get done in that limited amount of time.”

While there may not be standalone commercial space legislation this year, other bills could address some relevant issues. One example is plans by Congress to take up an overall FAA reauthorization bill. While that legislation will largely cover aviation issues, Edwards suggested it could address the possibility of commercial spaceports accessing FAA funds devoted to airport improvement projects.

“We haven’t heard a specific request about tapping into that pot of money, but I think there is some desire to think that through a little bit,” he said. One issue, he said, would be how spaceports, and the companies using them, would pay into that fund.

Hammond said he expects the House Science Committee to again attempt to pass a NASA authorization bill, whose provisions would include the agency’s commercial crew and cargo programs. “I think it’s our first priority,” he said of the bill. “It’s important that NASA be authorized, particularly with the transition to the new administration.”

The committee has worked on several such bills in recent years, including a fiscal year 2015 authorization bill the House passed last February. The Senate, though, has not taken up that bill or authorization legislation of its own during that time.