WASHINGTON — The next big change in space operations could be the paperwork.
The U.S. government needs to reform and rethink its policies about working with private companies, in order to make the opportunities more agile and enticing for businesses, a panel of military and civilian experts said Monday.
“How will we make sure regulation doesn’t disadvantage either our companies or our activities?” said Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “I think that’s a key question. I don’t believe anybody knows the answer to that question.”
The panel on military-commercial relations in space was hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a kick-off to the think tank’s new Aerospace Security Project to study air and space issues more closely.
The regulatory framework of the nation’s space business has lagged behind rapid developments in the field, Loverro said. Some areas, like remote sensing, are stuck with outdated rules that require “regulatory reform, regulatory relaxation,” while other activities such as space traffic management “don’t have any regulation to date.”
Richard Leshner, vice president at Planet, a satellite-imaging company, said the commercial space industry is now “a partner leg” in space operations “in a way that’s more than just being the industrial contractor base.”
“Industry’s doing things differently and quickly,” he said. “Government, military, civil, needs to find a way to do rapid demonstrations and get data and information about what capabilities can bring.”
The government needs to “find ways to engage with industry through demonstrations, experiments, data buys, and figuring it out in real time, and then integrating that into the planning now so that your future architectures are integrated as well,” Leshner said.
Planet holds a $20 million contract with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to supply imagery from the constellation of small satellites the company is deploying.
While there’s been an effort to make regulations less cumbersome to businesses, some of the rules are still being enforced as if the U.S. government is the only operator in orbit, said Marcy Steinke, vice president at Digital Globe, a satellite-imaging company that received roughly half of its first quarter revenue from a long-standing NGA contract.
“Some of the things they’re looking at is the regulatory oversight, which probably — when it was set up 20-plus years ago — made sense when every satellite was a classified government satellite,” she said. “But now that the world is different, we need to look at what do they really need to oversee and what can we let go. I hope that 2017 is the year where the answer comes; there’s a lot that can be let go.”
Steinke said her company has heard from several clients who have described the U.S. licensing and regulatory process as “restrictive.”
“The concern with the slowness of it is that that slow and cumbersome process just pushes customers to international competitors,” she said.
The current constrained fiscal environment might force the government and military to take a second-look at partnerships with commercial space vendors, said Scott Pace, the director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
“The budget allocations and the budget caps and the overall structure of the federal budget is going to be the grinding pressure point,” Pace said. “It is like a glacier coming south, pushing all before it.”
That’s going to leave military and government leaders with a major question on their mind:
“How do they get most out of the increasingly limited amount of resources that they have?” Pace said. “This in turn is going to drive deeper questions about what should be done in house, what should be sent out, what in what capacity should we need to retain in government, and which ones are we willing to let go.”
The way the U.S. acquired space systems and services currently “doesn’t really provide a lot of opportunities for partnerships with the commercial sector, or with international partners, as much as we would like,” he said, adding that the U.S. should be leading by example in establishing rules and norms for space.
“In many ways, it is an old-fashioned space policy which is looking at what can the U.S. do by itself, whereas leadership today is about what can we get others to do with us,” Pace said. “The U.S. is the most space reliant country in the world. Our security, our economy, even our own self-image to some extent depend on this. Yet we don’t treat it quite that way…If we are not partnering with other people and shaping those rules, we are staying behind.”
Getting more industry involvement in space operations makes good military sense, too, Loverro said, and can help make the U.S. and its allies more secure.
“We could try to do it by building more resilient and more numerous space systems all by ourselves, by the U.S. government,” he said. “That’s neither fiscally responsible nor, quite frankly, operationally responsible because if you do that they tend to all have the same built-in vulnerabilities.”
A “diverse set of space capabilities” provided by government and industry together “is a much more resilient kind of capability to have, because everyone has different weak points, everyone has different vulnerabilities, everyone has different advantages to be used in different ways,” Loverro said.
And a robust private sector gives the U.S. and its allies a big advantage militarily in space. Almost all of the commercial space capabilities and entrepreneurial start-ups are based in the U.S., he said.
“We want to keep it that way,” Loverro said. “We want those people to stay in the U.S., and that leads to ‘how do we as the government go ahead and enable us to get more commercial space services?’ We have to go ahead and change policies with regards to licensing to make it easier for the people to go ahead and invest in advanced space capabilities within the U.S. Because that frees up the entrepreneurial spirit that we see in the U.S. and it will allow those new space services to come to the market more quickly, more rapidly, more agilely.”