Kevin O'Connell
Kevin O'Connell, seen here testifying at a February 2018 National Space Council meeting, said his priorities as director of the Office of Space Commerce include advocating for and working with industry as well as regulatory reform. Credit: NASA

“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the March 11, 2019 issue.

Last spring saw a surge in activity by the administration regarding commercial space policy. Space Policy Directive (SPD) 2, signed by President Trump in May, directed a number of actions to reform launch, remote sensing and other regulations associated with commercial space. Less than a month later, he signed SPD-3, intended to give the Commerce Department new responsibilities in space traffic management.

Around that time, the Commerce Department also appointed Kevin O’Connell as director of the Office of Space Commerce, an office that dates back to Reagan administration but has been neglected for much of recent history. O’Connell told an audience at a Washington Space Business Roundtable breakfast March 6 that he is the first permanent director for the office in about a decade.

“It’s been a fast and furious pace in the job,” he said of the nine months he’s been on the job. “Even in that short period of time I think we’ve gotten a lot done, and even more importantly, we’ve laid the path to getting a lot more done.”

Despite that fast and furious pace, there are some overdue milestones for both the Commerce Department and the rest of the government. One example is the proposed revision to launch licensing directed by SPD-2. That had a Feb. 1 deadline but was delayed by the government shutdown that affected the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That notice of proposed rulemaking is now expected by the end of March.

SPD-2 also called for similar proposed rules revising commercial remote sensing regulations 90 days after the directive was signed. Those proposed rules have yet to be published, though, having been held up for months by reviews involving the Office of Management and Budget. “I know I promised that a while back,” O’Connell said. “We’re very much in the final discussions about that right now at OMB, and you should see something in the near future.”

There have also been setbacks in Congress. The administration sought to elevate the Office of Space Commerce to the Bureau of Space Commerce that would be led by an assistant secretary of commerce, a position requiring Senate confirmation. O’Connell said that was intended in part to ensure that the office didn’t have a long leadership gap again.

However, while language authorizing that change was included in the Senate’s Space Frontier Act, that bill failed to pass the House late last year. “We’re actively out describing, on both sides of the aisle up on the Hill, on why the bureau is still very important,” he said.

O’Connell said his office has its hands full on a variety of other issues, such as how to develop an “open data repository” for space situational awareness. His office is also working on how to better estimate the size of the overall space economy, which other estimates have pegged at nearly $400 billion. “I worry that we’re undercounting,” he said. “We don’t fully understand how to quantify that at this point.”

All this is being done with just a few people in the office. There’s concern in Congress about creating another large bureaucracy, so the office has been encouraged to be a “lean organization,” he said. His goal is to make the office the same size it was in its early days, with about eight staff members and a number of detailees, both from elsewhere in the Commerce Department as well as from other agencies.

“There’s a heck of a lot left to do,” he acknowledged. “What we’re trying to do is to balance the internal and external pressures on the job and to build a lean office to bring together people in what we call a one-stop shop.”

There is, though, the danger of trying to be too lean, given everything involved with becoming that one-stop shop for commercial space. Whether it’s an office or a bureau, it can’t afford to also be a bottleneck.


Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.

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...