Op-ed | A one-stop-shop for private space exploration

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This op-ed originally appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

In the inaugural meeting of the reconstituted National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence called for an overhaul of how the U.S. regulates commercial space activities. The potential of a robust economy in space will “unlock new opportunities, new technologies, and new sources of prosperity,” Pence said.

The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (H.R. 2809), recently passed by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, accomplishes the vice president’s goals. This bill places authority over private sector space activities in the agency best equipped to foster economic growth, the Commerce Department. The bipartisan legislation streamlines regulatory processes, limits government intrusion, promotes American innovation and investment, protects national security and satisfies our Outer Space Treaty obligations.

As chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee, and as a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I have the unique perspective of overseeing both of these agencies. Because of this perspective, I believe placing this responsibility at the Commerce Department is a good long-term decision for the United States and the space industry.

The Obama administration proposed giving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), housed within the Department of Transportation (DOT), responsibility for managing a broad interagency review of all private sector space activity proposals through an opaque process without defined approval timelines, regardless of how benign those activities may be. My committee held numerous hearings on this idea to hear directly from experts and stakeholders. We found that FAA accomplishes its current mission— managing launches and re-entry— very well. However, the agency is challenged to meet its existing obligations to regulate launch and reentry, and should not be burdened with the additional responsibility of authorizing and supervising private activities in space.

Moreover, current law actually prohibits DOT from regulating activities in space. It only has the ability to deny a launch if no other agency has licensed the activity. Congress did not intend or design this authority to create regulatory authority for on-orbit activities, or authorization or supervision process for Outer Space Treaty compliance.

In contrast, the Commerce Department’s mission is to “create the conditions for economic growth and opportunity,” and that mission runs deep through the culture. As the space economy develops, in-space activities will focus more on commerce, less on transportation logistics. Mining, habitation modules, and satellite servicing are only a few of the novel ideas that American innovators are proposing. These activities are not related to transportation, and DOT has no experience in this field. The Commerce Department, however, is familiar with the issues that future stakeholders will need to consider, including international trade and technology.

The bill also streamlines the federal space bureaucracy within the Commerce Department itself. It merges the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) responsibilities over space-based remote sensing into the already-existing Office of Space Commerce within the Commerce Department. NOAA is itself housed within the Commerce Department, so having two separate offices handling the same responsibilities makes no sense.

Reforming this splintered regulatory process minimizes the burden on other agencies and makes the Commerce Department a one-stop shop for Outer Space Treaty compliance. Giving DOT authority, as proposed by the previous administration, would split the regulatory system, requiring remote-sensing satellite operators to seek regulatory approval for their operations from both DOT and the Commerce Department.

Indeed, placing this authority at the Commerce Department is a continuation of long-standing law and national policy. Since 1984, Commerce has been the only federal agency with the legal authority to authorize and supervise space activities. While the Federal Communications Commission regulates spectrum and DOT regulates launch and re-entry, neither has the authority to authorize and supervise space activities generally to assure compliance with the Outer Space Treaty.

Some stakeholders have questioned whether the Office of Space Commerce can handle remote-sensing licensing and supervising general space activities. The answer is yes. The Commerce Department already has expertise authorizing and supervising remote-sensing systems, and the bill’s streamlined review process is more transparent, quicker, and less burdensome on staff. Importantly, Commerce also has expertise in balancing national security with commercial interests, working with American industry internationally and in regulating space dual-use technologies through the Export Administration Regulations.

The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act declares that America is open for business in outer space. The only agency with the long-standing experience and culture to regulate and foster the budding space economy is the Commerce Department.

With this innovative legislation, which builds on that culture of transparency and clarity, we position the American space industry as a leader in growing a robust and lawful economy in space.

Congressman Brian Babin represents the 36th District of Texas in the House of Representatives and is the Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space.