Congress includes space provisions in FAA bill as industry seeks action on other regulatory issues

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WASHINGTON — With Congress set to approve a Federal Aviation Administration bill with some commercial space provisions, those in the industry are hoping for action on other bills before the end of this year.

House and Senate negotiators announced early Sept. 22 a final agreement on a compromise version of an FAA reauthorization bill, reconciling differences between their separate bills. That final bill is set for votes this week in the House and Senate.

The bill authorizes a significant increase in spending for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, from the $22.6 million it received in fiscal year 2018 to a little more than $33 million in 2019, growing to nearly $76 million in 2023. Appropriators, though, have not matched that authorized increase for 2019, with House and Senate versions of spending bills funding the FAA offering just under $25 million for AST.

The reauthorization bill includes several policy provisions associated with commercial spaceflight as well. One would require the FAA to designate an official within its air traffic organization to serve as the single point of contact for working with the head of AST on airspace issues associated with commercial launch activity.

Another provision establishes an “Office of Spaceports” within AST intended to support commercial licensing of launch sites and develop policies to promote infrastructure improvements at such facilities. It also requires AST to develop a report within one year of the bill’s enactment on spaceport policies, including recommendations on government actions to “support, encourage, promote, and facilitate greater investments in infrastructure at spaceports.” It directs the Government Accountability Office to prepare a separate report on ways to provide federal support for spaceports.

The bill creates a category of commercial spaceflight vehicles known as “space support vehicles” that cover parts of launch vehicles systems flying for other purposes, such as training or testing. Such vehicles would include the aircraft used by air-launch systems. The bill allows commercial flights of space support vehicles without the need for a full-fledged airworthiness certificate from the FAA.

Taking action on other issues

The FAA bill, though, does not address a number of other commercial space regulatory issues being considered by Congress, such as reforms to the commercial remote sensing licensing reform process and oversight of “non-traditional” commercial space activities.

Both the House and Senate have legislation addressing both matters. There’s little difference between the two bills with respect to commercial remote sensing reforms, with widespread agreement of a need to reduce the timeframes for reviewing license applications and make it more difficult to delay or reject applications.

“I think one thing we can all agree on is the need for commercial remote sensing reform. I have not heard a voice yet objecting to it,” said Mike Gold at a Sept. 21 space law conference here held by the University of Nebraska College of Law. Gold, chair of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, is also a vice president at Maxar Technologies, parent company of commercial remote sensing company DigitalGlobe.

There is no such unanimity, though, when it comes to the issue of what’s sometimes called “on-orbit authority” for activities ranging from commercial lunar landers to satellite servicing. The House’s American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act would give that authority to the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce, while the Senate’s Space Frontier Act would use the existing payload review process for FAA launch license applications to provide that authorization.

Gold and other panelists argued for some kind of resolution of the matter this year, rather than starting over next year with a new Congress. “If we cannot achieve consensus, don’t punt until the next Congress, because if we do that, we’re in the unknown,” he said. “It’s important for us to focus on the art of the achievable, where the agreement is, and then to move forward from there.”

“Not doing anything is the worst possible outcome,” said Peter Marquez, principal at consulting company Andart Global who previously handled space policy on the staff of the National Security Council. His concern was that, without a resolution of the current uncertainty, companies might move to other countries with a clearer regulatory regime. “If we’re having this discussion next year, then there’s going to be a lot of companies, here in this audience or thinking of starting up, that are not going to start up in the United States.”

“Something needs to definitively happen,” said Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel and director of government affairs at SpaceX. She said giving on-orbit authority to the Commerce Department appeared to make the most sense, but sought at least some initial language, such as an interagency review process, that could be expanded upon later. “It’s a matter of fixing a foundation and then building a layer upon that foundation.”

The panelists, though, said they appreciated the attention that these regulatory issues are getting today, both in Congress and through the National Space Council. “I would have killed for this amount of attention on space when I was in the White House,” said Marquez.