Op-ed | Continued innovation, regulatory reform needed to further U.S. leadership in space

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The commercial space sector is leading the way

The United States continues to drive innovation in space, and strong, sustained government support can ensure that we maintain and accelerate that progress.

Over the last two decades, novel and affordable technologies from the commercial space industry have driven innovation and advancement in the space sector. Companies big and small have contributed to the bold new frontier in ways that, not so long ago, existed only in science fiction.

From reusable rocketry to in-space manufacturing, these and other breakthrough technologies have driven our nation’s space capabilities forward, largely thanks to the unprecedented investment by private companies and entrepreneurs. This commercial space industry is driving the expansion of Earth’s economic sphere and inspiring America’s next generation of engineers and explorers.

The accelerated growth of this industry has been astonishing. The early 2000s saw an average of only three funded space companies per year. According to research from Bryce Space and Technology, that growth has exploded to an average of 17 new companies funded annually since 2009, attracting investments from more than 60 venture capital firms in space deals last year alone. This funding includes more than $5 billion of investment in startup-stage space firms in the last two years alone, creating thousands of high tech jobs along the way.

To continue the growth of investment and rapid progress in commercial space, we must ensure that federal policies and regulations are aligned with our economic strengths as a nation — ingenuity, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship —  and alleviate bureaucratic obstacles to them.

We echo the recent call by the FAA to create a “21st century licensing process” for commercial spaceflight. Modernizing outdated space regulations will pave the way for continued growth to ensure that expansion continues, and new, technological innovations will be available for future exploration. Existing launch regulations were written for ICBM-derived expendable launch vehicles and need to be updated to include small affordable rockets and large reusables. In addition, revisions are necessary to NOAA’s rules on remote sensing, codified 25 years ago, long before a market explosion of geographic information systems, smartphone mapping and constellations of Earth-observing microsatellites.

The Trump administration campaigned on an inspirational vision for America’s commercial space industry and has taken important steps towards executing that vision with the re-establishing the National Space Council and providing a platform for commercial space industry leaders to advise directly on matters of strategic progress represents a significant step towards furthering that goal.

The NSC, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence with Scott Pace serving as executive director, has begun drafting the strategic agenda that will drive U.S. competitiveness and further advance our nation’s leadership in space. We strongly encourage the council to consider policies that encourage — and not hamper — continued space innovation. Based on the continued dialog with the vice president and council members, we are extremely optimistic that the agenda will include a renewed commitment to the public-private partnerships which have proved critical in furthering our nation’s technological advancements in space.

To further illustrate its commitment to commercial space, last week, President Trump signed the Space Policy Directive 1 which directs NASA to partner with the commercial space industry to return Americans to the Moon. The U.S. commercial space industry has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in private capital to develop innovative capabilities for lunar transport, operations, and resource utilization, leading to many lower cost innovative approaches that can benefit this new era of lunar exploration. And, we urge the administration to direct NASA to leverage these capabilities to generate greater efficiency and quicker solutions, and to partner with industry through flexible, innovative contracting approaches, to accelerate progress towards achieving the goals set out in the new Executive Order.

When the U.S. leads in space exploration, the world benefits. We, as a nation, have proved ourselves to be pioneers of the commercial spaceflight industry. We are at the precipice of a renewed space era and anticipate 2018 to be one for the record books, with unprecedented firsts and considerable milestones. We must be steadfast in our collective commitment to enhance growth, continue U.S. leadership in space, establish a sustainable space economy and democratize access to space for the betterment of humankind.


Eric Stallmer is president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the leading voice for the commercial space industry representing more than 75 members and dedicated to promoting the development of commercial spaceflight, pursuing ever-higher levels of safety and sharing best practices and expertise throughout the industry.