George Nield, associate administrator for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Credit: SpaceNews/Tom Kimmell

LONG BEACH, Calif. — The Federal Aviation Administration is willing to take on the task of informing commercial, civil and foreign satellite operators of possible on-orbit collisions, while leaving the Defense Department in charge of supporting military space missions.

“We think that makes a lot of sense,” George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said Sept. 15 at an AIAA Space conference here. “We are ready to roll up our sleeves, partner with the Defense Department and other stakeholders to see if we can make that work.”

That view is backed up by the Department of Transportation’s Report on Processing and Releasing Safety-Related Space Situational Awareness Data, sent to Congress Sept. 6. Under a provision of the 2015 U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, Congress directed the Secretary of Transportation to consult with leaders of other federal agencies and to determine whether the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation could take over a portion of the space situational awareness role currently performed by the Defense Department.

The report concludes the FAA could perform the role, but says Congress would need to give the agency new legislative authority because both the U.S. National Space Policy of 2010 and the U.S. National Security Space Strategy of 2011 assign responsibility for space situational awareness to the Defense Secretary and National Intelligence Director.

In addition, the FAA would require the same type of immunity from lawsuits stemming from the space situational awareness information it provides satellite operators that the Defense Department currently possesses, according to the report 12-page report.

Finally, the FAA would need additional funding and personnel to perform the space situational awareness role. However, Congress would not need to provide the FAA with as much money as the Air Force now spends on space situational awareness activities because the Air Force “is doing a much bigger job,” Nield said.

By taking advantage of the experience gained by the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the organization that tracks and catalogs approximately 18,000 objects in orbit, and harnessing new technology and commercial innovation, “we believe it is possible to do this job for a relatively modest cost,” Nield said.

In its report to Congress, the Transportation Department estimates that the FAA could obtain the commercial analysis systems and take the steps necessary to begin working with the Defense Department for “roughly $20 million.” If Congress assigns the FAA authority to take on this new role, the Transportation Department will produce a detailed budget, according to the report.

“The cost would depend heavily upon implementation, strategy and timing,” the report said. “Factors under consideration are costs for equipment, training and security.”

If FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation begins to take responsibility for sharing safety-related space situational awareness information with commercial, civil and foreign satellite operators, the FAA also may be able to play an effective role in discussing space safety with satellite operators around the world. “We are in a better position to talk about norms of behavior from a safety perspective rather than having it filtered through the military,” Nield said.


Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...