Advisory committee seeks to enhance commercial space activities

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WASHINGTON — A new advisory committee has proposed a set of recommendations to NASA in areas ranging from export control to advertising to enhance commercial activities in space.

The Regulatory and Policy Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) met for the first time Nov. 16 at NASA Headquarters here. The committee, announced at the council’s last meeting in August and comprised primarily of representatives of space companies, is tasked with examining issues associated with commercialization of NASA activities and the agency’s support for commercial space.

“This is a big change for the NAC,” said Mike Gold of Maxar Technologies, chairman of the committee. “For a while I was the only industry representative on the NAC, and now we have a committee full of industry representatives. I think that is representative of the shifts occurring in industry, and I greatly appreciate NASA being willing to go in this direction.”

Over the course of the three-hour inaugural meeting, the committee approved a series of observations, findings and recommendations on several topics. Among them was a perennial area of concern for the space industry, export controls. “Second only to gravity, the ITAR had the greatest chance of keeping our spacecraft on the ground,” said Gold, referring to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which for many years covered satellites and related components.

While export control reforms in 2014 moved many of those items off the U.S. Munitions List and therefore no longer subject to ITAR, committee members sought to expand those reforms. A provision in the U.S. Munitions List specifically excludes the International Space Station and items “specially designed” for it, an exemption that the committee recommended be preserved for NASA’s planned lunar Gateway, any future commercial habitats added to the ISS and “private sector platforms, regardless of location” in space.

The committee also proposed that NASA, when asked as part of interagency review processes to examine license applications, recommend export control regulations not apply when those technologies are widely available on the international market. That recommendation, Gold said, is in the spirit of language in Space Policy Directive 2 calling for streamlining of space-related export control rules.

On another issue, the committee recommended NASA seek “legislative relief” from Congress on the issue of intellectual property rights. Committee members called for legislation to allow NASA to waive any intellectual property rights it might have to commercial research performed on the ISS, eliminating any uncertainty that could deter such activities.

“This is one of the roadblocks” to greater commercial use of the ISS by pharmaceutical companies in particular, said Jeffrey Manber of NanoRacks. “Involvement on the space station by pharmaceutical industry has been below what we’ve been hoping.”

Commercial use of ISS

Other recommendations called on NASA to provide assurances that companies that develop private facilities for use on the ISS have guaranteed access to them, something that does not exist today, and that NASA reserve a “discrete percentage” of station resources, including cargo to and from the station and crew time, to support commercial activities, including those that do not contribute directly to NASA’s mission.

Manber said that lack of guaranteed access is a concern to companies like his, which uses the station today for experiments and satellite deployments and is developing its own airlock module, Bishop. “It’s best effort,” he said of what NASA promises the company regarding use of its own hardware. “It doesn’t say that, when we have a customer, you can have access to your airlock.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who attended part of the meeting, appeared to endorse the idea of reserving a fraction of ISS resources for commercial activities. “The intent here is to test and/or prove a market,” he said. “The intent here is not to utilize the ISS for the rest of time as some kind of piggy bank for the private sector.”

The committee also recommended that NASA “seek to identify and remove barriers” that could prevent commercial crew companies from selling any excess seats on future missions to the ISS for commercial customers. Contrary to some reports, though, the recommendation does not call on NASA to sell those seats to prospective commercial passengers, only that, if NASA is reimbursed by the companies for the value of seats the agency itself does not use, that the funds be used to “facilitate commercialization of space platforms in and beyond” low Earth orbit.

When Bridenstine announced the committee at the NAC meeting in August, one issue that he said it should bring up is the ability of NASA to place advertising on launch vehicles or spacecraft, or have astronauts perform endorsements. Those issues came up at the committee meeting, with recommendations for NASA to “examine the possible public benefits of space-based promotional activities,” which the committee noted would require legislative changes.

Some members raised concerns that combining company logos or advertising with NASA insignia might weaken the agency’s brand. “We don’t want Mars 2020 looking like a stock car,” said John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “This is a tricky issue.”

The issue of sponsorships involving NASA is one “I have seen become very personal to the entire nation,” said Bridenstine, even those who don’t follow space activities closely. The purpose of any such activities, he said, would not be revenue generation for the agency so much as additional means of outreach. “The idea that a brand would use its relationship with NASA in its own advertising campaign globally would, I think, potentially inspire people on the other side of the planet.”

Planetary protection versus harmful contamination

While the bulk of the meeting tackled issues regarding commercial activities in Earth orbit, the committee also addressed the issue of planetary protection and how it applied to activities beyond Earth. The committee approved several recommendations, including one calling on NASA to work with other agencies on policies “that properly balance the legitimate need to protect against the harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies with the scientific, social, and economic benefits of public and private space missions.”

Some even questioned the use of the term “planetary protection,” noting that treaties instead refer to avoiding “harmful contamination,” which sounds less restrictive. “I have come to believe in the past few months in particular, as I’ve focused on this issue, that we’re missing something when we use ‘planetary protection,’” said Gabriel Swiney, a State Department lawyer who met with the committee on this topic. “‘Planetary protection’ sounds like an absolute.”

He said the term “harmful contamination” is more nuanced, acknowledging that some kinds of contamination will be inevitable in space activities but also not dangerous, “and it’s the words in the treaty.”

Bridenstine acknowledged a potential conflict between science and human exploration when it comes to this issue. “In the science community, if you accidently put a microbe on another planet, that, in their world, is harmful,” he said. “But if you’re trying to develop a base of operations with in situ resource utilization for human activity, leaving a microbe is not harmful. Leaving a microbe is going to be in the natural course of doing business as you’re trying to live.”

“There a balancing act here,” he added, “that historically we’ve not had to strike but in the future we have to strike because we want humans to go to other planets.”