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WASHINGTON — Should the federal government decide to shift responsibility for at least some space traffic management activities from the Defense Department to the Federal Aviation Administration, officials with both agencies expect a gradual transition, starting with a pilot program.

In presentations Oct. 12 at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the head of the FAA’s commercial space transportation office and a U.S. Strategic Command general both endorsed a “crawl, walk, run” approach to handing over responsibility for providing safety-related space situational awareness data, like warnings of potential collisions between satellites and other objects in orbit, to non-military satellite operators.

A report prepared by the Department of Transportation and submitted to Congress in September concluded that the FAA could take on that responsibility, provided it was given formal authority to do so and resources to carry out that work. The report also said the FAA would need the same immunity from lawsuits that the Defense Department currently has for providing warnings of potential collisions.

“It would be very feasible to do that,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in his ISPCS speech. “We want to accomplish that transition as soon as possible, but to do that in a ‘crawl, walk, run’ manner so that all of the key stakeholders are comfortable with the approaches being used, the progress being made, and the products and services that are provided.”

Nield suggested that, as a first step, “jointly conducting a six- to nine-month pilot program that would operate in parallel with the existing collision warning process” provided by the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC. That program would allow the FAA to refine its processes before formally taking on responsibility to provide collision warnings.

After that, Nield suggested transitioning responsibility from the JSpoC to the new FAA system in phases, initially with selected types of satellites, such as constellations of smallsats. Later phases, he said, would “mature and expand” operations to other non-military satellite operators. Once the FAA system reached full operational capability, he said, “the DOD could begin phasing out its non-national-security information sharing and focus exclusively on military missions in space.”

Nield’s overall strategy had the support of U. S. Army Maj. Gen. Heidi Brown, the director of global operations for Strategic Command. “I agree with your comment earlier where you talked about a ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach,” she told Nield during a conference panel session. “I also agree, I think, with the pilot program that you suggested, where we demonstrate this together.”

“DOD is not against this at all,” she said of giving responsibility for non-military satellite collision warnings to the FAA. “We want to make sure we maintain our ability to defend and attribute bad actors in space, because that’s critical for our nation’s defense, as well as for our allies. A partnership in this endeavor is certainly the way to go.”

The FAA, even after taking full responsibility for providing collision warnings, would continue to use space situational awareness data provided by the Air Force, potentially augmented by data from commercial providers. Nield, though, said that the transition would provide an opportunity develop new ways to analyze that data to more effectively warn satellite operators of collision risks.

“Based on the many years of learning and operations that the military has successfully accomplished, and, by taking advantage of the advanced technologies and new capabilities that are out there today in the private sector, I think we can start with a clean sheet that does not require a huge amount of resources to accomplish,” he said.

Nield offered similar remarks at a space law conference here Oct. 17 organized by the University of Nebraska College of Law. A panel session that followed, with industry and government representatives, also supported a gradual transition of space traffic management work to the FAA, in part to help reduce the burden on the DOD.

“We recognize that there is an oversubscribed Department and Defense and intelligence community,” said Don Greiman, vice president of the space situational awareness unit at Schafer Corp. Any reluctance in those communities to handing over responsibilities to the FAA, he suggested, might stem from concerns that it will take resources away from their national security responsibilities.

Steph Earl, space traffic and Air Force integration lead at the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said he had not encountered any significant resistance within the DOD to the idea of FAA taking on some space traffic management responsibilities, but noted there is some reticence. “There are still places where we need to do a little work to convince them that this is the right idea,” he said.

“Everyone recognizes it’s something that’s need,” he said. “We’re at that tipping point to kick it off, but we’re just trying to push it through the finish line.”

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...