Commentary | Commercial space innovation needs more government certainty
This commentary originally appeared in the March 13 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
During the recent presidential election, the Trump campaign sent a strong message of support for the burgeoning commercial space sector. After the election, the early signals from the Trump transition and beachhead teams across the various departments and agencies involved in space activities largely echoed that same message of support. However, at least two of the recent decisions made by the Trump White House put in place policies that, as currently formulated, could hinder continued growth in commercial space.
Over the last decade, there has been a revolution in the commercial space sector. The revolution is based on a potent combination of Moore’s Law, spin-in technologies from the information technology sector, and cloud computing that together have enabled small satellite technology to change the price/performance ratio. These drivers have spurred the creation of dozens of new American space companies and a rekindling of competitive spirit in many legacy companies. The result has been an infusion of fresh ideas, new approaches, increased innovation, and renewed excitement in the space world.
This revolution would not have been possible without policies put in place by previous presidential administrations. Since the Reagan administration, nearly every U.S. presidential administration has issued national space policies that sought to promote growth and innovation in the commercial space sector. Past administrations also established oversight and regulatory mechanisms that enabled commercial companies to undertake space activities and helped establish the United States as a global leader in commercial space.
However, the rapid expansion and innovation from the commercial space revolution has outpaced the existing policy and regulatory framework in critical areas. Government agencies responsible for issuing licenses, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), are being deluged with more new licensing applications than ever before. At the same time, there are commercial space activities being developed that do not clearly fit into any of the existing licensing categories or authorities, which hinders their ability to secure investment and insurance. Meanwhile, other countries — such as Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates — are aggressively moving to put in place their own national frameworks to court new commercial space companies.
The commercial space revolution is also outpacing current governmental services for monitoring the space environment. There is a growing concern that the existing sources of space situational awareness (SSA) data and analytical tools, which are mainly provided by the U.S. military, are not sufficient to keep pace with the growing congestion in orbit. More than 10,000 new commercial satellites are planned for launch in the next decade, which will greatly increase the demand for tracking and conjunction-assessment services to help prevent collisions that could create long-lived space debris.
Both the Obama administration and Congress began initiatives to address these challenges. The Obama administration worked with Congress to revamp the burdensome export controls placed in the space industry, and organized a formal interagency working group to look at space traffic management. Congress held hearings on space traffic management, and commissioned several studies on space debris mitigation, transferring some SSA responsibilities to a civil agency, new licensing options for innovative commercial activities, and potential changes to oversight roles and responsibilities for U.S. government agencies. In November 2015, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which among other things recognized the need to develop a more stable and predictable regulatory regime for commercial space activities, passed Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Obama.
However, two recent decisions made by the Trump administration could hinder these positive steps. On Jan. 23, the Trump administration issued a memorandum implementing a hiring freeze on all non-military federal positions, except for those related to public safety and national security. On Jan. 30, the Trump Administration issued an executive order on reducing regulations, which required all federal agencies and departments to repeal two regulations for every new one created, except for regulations pertaining to military, national security, or foreign affairs functions of the United States, and that any incremental costs from new regulations be offset by elimination of existing costs.
The hiring freeze runs contrary to what is needed to help boost commercial space. Setting aside the fact that the U.S. federal workforce is at its smallest size since the mid-1960s, the civil agencies providing oversight of commercial space activities are already too understaffed to perform their existing functions for the increased number of commercial space activities. The office within NOAA that issues remote sensing licenses has one person in some critical positions, and FAA/AST is struggling to meet its licensing and inspection obligations. Providing better SSA data and services is also going to require at least some additional personnel, although far fewer than most fear.
The main problem with the regulatory repeal is what it doesn’t cover. The current executive order excludes national security restrictions and regulations, which are the primary source of burden on the space industry. Export controls on satellites, mainly put in place over fears of technology transfer to China, have already caused the U.S. space sector to lose a significant portion of global market share. The reforms put in place by the Obama administration are an improvement, but more reform is still needed. Due to national security restrictions, other areas such as on-orbit space situational awareness, high-resolution optical imagery, infrared and hyperspectral imagery, and radiofrequency remote sensing are heavily restricted for commercial entities, or, in some cases, are even off limits to commercial companies.
But eliminating regulations alone will not give commercial space the certainty it needs to thrive. Existing licensing processes need to be streamlined and made more transparent. Gaps in oversight need to be eliminated, so that civil agencies can say “yes” to new and innovative commercial space activities such as on-orbit satellite servicing, asteroid mining, lunar exploration, radiofrequency remote sensing, private space stations, and all the other activities the private sector can dream up. Civil agencies also need the power to overrule excessive national security restrictions that unduly impact innovation.
Finally, the U.S. government needs to take proactive steps to enable better space situational awareness data and services. A civil agency should be given the responsibility and resources for improving the safety and efficiency of space activities, as is already the case for surface, air, and maritime transportation; while allowing the Department of Defense to focus on the national security SSA mission. The civil agency should work with governmental, international, and private sector SSA providers to establish improved data and services that can help improve the safety and sustainability of space activities.
By taking these steps, the Trump administration, working in concert with Congress, can make meaningful progress towards fulfilling its campaign promises on commercial space. The overall goal should be to improve the certainty, agility, and efficiency by which the U.S. government can approve and enable commercial space activities.
Brian Weeden is the director of program Planning for the Secure World Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the long-term sustainable use of space for benefits on Earth. He is a former U.S. Air Force officer and serves on the Board of Advisers for Chandah Space Technologies.