Foust Forward | For commercial space, fewer-stop, not one-stop, shopping

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the June 4, 2018 issue.

For an administration that likes to play up even the smallest space policy milestone, the signing of Space Policy Directive 2 on May 24 almost flew under the radar.

The Orbital ATK Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, launches from Pad-0A on May 21, 2018 at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: NASA
The Orbital ATK Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, launches from Pad-0A on May 21, 2018 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: NASA

Unlike the previous directive last December directing NASA to return to the moon, or an executive order reestablishing the National Space Council last summer, there was no signing ceremony for SPD-2 attended by members of Congress or industry officials, and no remarks by the president or vice president. Instead, there was just a single White House photo of the president holding the signed document and a brief statement from Vice President Pence.

Despite the low profile, the space industry still considered SPD-2 to be important. It incorporates, with very few changes, National Space Council recommendations from February regarding regulatory reform. They include changes to streamlining the launch licensing process — allowing, for example, a single license for a launch vehicle regardless of spaceport — as well as studies of export control and spectrum issues.

What got the most attention, though, was the section calling for the reorganization of the Commerce Department’s space offices. That reorganization would combine the Office of Space Commerce with the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office, as well as include liaisons from several other Commerce Department agencies whose work involves space.

The purpose of this reorganization, the White House said in a fact sheet about SPD-2, is to create a “one-stop shop” for commercial space regulation. That was a theme echoed by the Commerce Department, which has given the reorganized office the somewhat convoluted name “Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise Administration” — yes, the SPACE Administration.

“A unified departmental office for business needs will enable better coordination of space-related activities,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “When companies seek guidance on launching satellites, the SPACE Administration will be able to address an array of space activities.”

But the SPACE Administration will still fall short of that envisioned one-stop stop. For example, companies seeking launch licenses will still have to go to the FAA, while the FCC will continue to regulate satellite communications. Even for activities the new office will regulate, like remote sensing, there will remain requirements for interagency coordination, which has delayed licensing of some satellite systems in the past.

Congress will also have to weigh in on some of these reforms. “The secretary can, of course, reorganize his own office as he is doing on his own authority,” said a White House official, speaking on background. However, that official acknowledged that Congress will ultimately need to act “on legislation that would be a more permanent recognition of their reorganization.”

The House passed a bill in April that includes many elements of those changes. The Senate hasn’t take up that bill, though, and Ted Cruz, who chairs the Senate’s space subcommittee, said in a recent interview that commercial space regulatory reform remains a “subject of discussion” for his committee.

Others wonder how seriously the Commerce Department will take up such organizational reform. “Talk is cheap,” said George Nield, the former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, at a conference a few days after the SPD-2 announcement. “Putting out a policy directive is very nice, and you can move blocks around on an org chart, but unless you’re going to be serious about this and assign technically capable, experienced people and provide the budgets they’re going to need to do this job, we are kidding ourselves.”

The prioritization the Commerce Department gives space regulatory reform remains to be seen: Ross often talks about the issue, but the department has yet to name a new director of the Office of Space Commerce months after saying such an appointment would come soon. But even in the best-case scenario, space companies will still have to make several stops to complete their regulatory shopping lists.


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