WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Congress considers proposals to grant government agencies with additional commercial space regulatory authority, industry and government officials believe it is unlikely those efforts will lead to a broader consolidation of regulatory power.
Representatives from companies and agencies, speaking at a forum on the topic of on-orbit jurisdiction organized by the University of Nebraska College of Law here Nov. 3, agreed that while there is a need to address issues such as space traffic management and property rights, it is unlikely overall regulation of commercial space activities will soon be consolidated into a single agency.
“When you raise the question of who needs to have the regulatory authority — which body is it — that presupposes a lot of answers that we don’t have yet,” said Peter Marquez, vice president for global engagement of Planetary Resources and former director of space policy for the U.S. National Security Council.
He called for discussions among the agencies involved in regulating those activities to examine what gaps currently exist and how to fill them. “Until the interagency has this discussion, I think trying to find a single point of contact is a little bit premature,” Marquez said.
In recent months, the Federal Aviation Administration has expressed interest in gaining authority to regulate commercial spacecraft in orbit. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation already regulates commercial launches and re-entries but has no jurisdiction between launch and re-entry.
“Our goal would be to promote orbital space transportation safety, including for orbital debris mitigation, for spacecraft whose primary function is transportation,” George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said at a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee here in May.
The FAA, however, is not the only agency with a stake in the regulation of commercial spacecraft. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues communications licenses for spacecraft, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration licenses commercial remote sensing spacecraft.
That can create some regulatory overlap. The FCC and NOAA both require licensees to have orbital debris mitigation guidelines, while the FAA has the ability to perform a review of payloads on launches it licenses.
The FCC cites the Communications Act of 1934 as the source of its authority to license satellite communications and issues involving it. “It does go obviously beyond a very traditional radio frequency regulatory role,” said Karl Kensinger, deputy division chief of the FCC’s Satellite Division. “We can’t move forward blindly if the economic venture that we are authorizing and facilitating through the license is going to present a hazard to safety.”
Although that overlap in debris mitigation regulation has the potential for conflicts, so far there have been no issues, in part because companies have been willing to abide by those agencies’ regulations. “Our licensees want to comply with the deorbiting requirements that we place on them,” said Glenn Talia, section chief of NOAA’s Weather, Satellites and Research Section.
By contrast, no agency has oversight of activities involving the utilization of space resources. The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act, introduced in the House in July, would grant U.S. companies the rights to resources they extract from asteroids and give them protection from “harmful interference” in those activities. The bill would give the FAA “and other appropriate Federal agencies” authority to develop regulatory frameworks.
Although the House Science Committee held a hearing about the bill in September, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), said later that month that his committee would not take action on the ASTEROIDS Act this year. Marquez said his company supported the bill and hoped it would be reintroduced next year, even if it is not the final word on the issue.
“Instead of having religious discussions about what could or could not be done for on-orbit activities, it’s something real that we can have real discussions about,” he said of the bill.
Having certainty over the regulatory environment, some panelists said, is more important than consolidating that oversight. “It is absolutely vital to establish, if nothing else, a degree of predictability,” said Mike Gold, chairman of FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee. “If investors hate one thing, it’s surprises.”