Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, said at an April 26 hearing it's time to examine potential changes to the Outer Space Treaty. Credit: Senate Commerce Committee webcast

WASHINGTON — A key senator says he’s keeping an open mind regarding who in the federal government should have responsibility for the oversight of “non-traditional” commercial space activities.

Speaking at a meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) June 14, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate’s space subcommittee, said he is still working on commercial space legislation that would address that oversight issue.

“One of the biggest questions facing Congress is who in the federal government should manage all non-traditional space activity moving forward,” he said. “There’s a great debate that is raging between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce.”

The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which the House passed in April, would give that authority to Commerce. The administration is also moving in that direction by ordering the Commerce Department, through Space Policy Directive (SPD) 2 in May, to consolidate its space activities into a single office with the goal of providing a “one-stop shop” for commercial space regulatory activity not already handled by other agencies, such as FAA’s launch and reentry licensing and the Federal Communications Commission’s licensing of satellite communications.

The Senate, though, has been working on its own commercial space bill, led by Cruz. Multiple industry sources have said the Senate is considering giving that oversight authority for non-traditional space activities to the Department of Transportation, of which the FAA is a part. The FAA had previously advocated for that authority, citing its experience with launch licensing and the recommendations of previous reports.

However, Cruz indicated in his speech that he had not made a final decision on who he thought should oversee those activities, which range from satellite servicing to commercial space stations and lunar landers, in order to comply with the authorization and supervision requirements of Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty.

“At this point I would say I think there are good and serious arguments that could be made on both sides,” he said, noting he was listening to experts on the issue. “I want to continue to receive input and guidance from industry, the stakeholders, to make a determination of what would make the biggest difference removing barriers and encouraging the maximum investment in commercial space and exploration.”

Cruz didn’t indicate when he and other senators working on the bill would make a decision and be ready to introduce the full bill. That bill will have to pass the Senate, and then likely be reconciled with the House bill, before the end of the year or else the next Congress will have to start over in January.

Earlier at the COMSTAC meeting, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Congress to make a decision, one way or another, without delay. “This cannot be parochial,” he said. “This is too important. We have to get this done.”

Bridenstine, who was active on space policy issues when he served in the House, is concerned about this debate because of NASA’s plans to make use of commercial capabilities in new ways, such as buying payload space on commercial lunar landers and potentially transferring research done on the International Space Stations to future commercial space stations. Those efforts could be complicated if companies don’t have a clear way to win regulatory approvals.

“Both sides have wonderful arguments,” he said of the debate between Commerce and Transportation. “But I will say this: we cannot let the good be the enemy of the perfect in this particular case. We have to get it done.”

He noted that SPD-2 puts Commerce “in the lead” on commercial space regulation, but he said there could be a role for the FAA and other agencies as well. “While Commerce could be the lead, they could also rely on the expertise of the agencies within the government.”

Among those other agencies, he said, was NASA. Asked later about what role NASA would play in supporting Commerce in oversight of non-traditional space activities, he cited NASA’s ability to provide technical advice on topics such as planetary protection, as well as research and technological advancement in areas like space traffic management.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, emphasized the importance of planetary protection in particular for commercial spacecraft to avoid such missions contaminating potentially habitable worlds, such as Mars or Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“The private sector needs to be sure that we’re doing planetary protection,” he said at the COMSTAC meeting. “I’ve not heard enough about protecting the pristine nature of worlds like Europa from Earth organisms. It’s very, very important as the private sector expands and begins to launch missions to other worlds that we have the same high levels of planetary protection and sterilization for commercially, private-built spacecraft that we do for NASA spacecraft.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...