Harris says U.S. to update commercial space regulations

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WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris said Aug. 12 that the National Space Council will work to revise commercial space regulations that have become “simply outdated” as the industry evolves.

Harris, in a brief speech at a science center in Oakland, California, said a “new rules framework” for commercial space activities will be discussed at the next National Space Council meeting, scheduled for Sept. 9.

“We’ve got to update the rules because they’re just simply outdated. They were written for a space industry of the last century,” she said. “We will do this work to make sure our nation remains a role model for the responsible use of space because we must keep pace with the tremendous rate of innovation.”

“We must write new rules to provide the clarity that all of us require, to provide certainty,” she said. “We must write new rules to provide flexibility to incorporate the innovation that is occurring in real time.”

She said those updates are needed to make sure the United States retains its role as a “flag of choice” for commercial space activities. “With that comes great opportunities but also great responsibility in terms of what course we will chart for the work that happens here on Earth that will then maximize the opportunities in space.”

Harris did not elaborate on specific regulatory issues the National Space Council will take up at its next meeting. However, one longstanding issue has been determining what agency or agencies will have responsibility for authorization and continuing supervision of commercial space activities required by Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty. While those responsibilities are understood for existing industries like satellite communications and remote sensing, they are less clear for emerging commercial markets like space stations, satellite servicing and lunar missions.

“I applaud the vice president’s leadership to address the rules of the road for commercial space. Specifically, industry needs a clear and efficient process for providing continuing supervision of private sector activities as required by the Outer Space Treaty,” Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire, told SpaceNews. “This process must encourage innovation while providing the government with the information necessary to preserve and protect the space environment.”

There have been previous efforts to address Article 6 oversight. The Obama administration pursued a “mission authorization” concept that would have been handled by the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space transportation office, but didn’t complete the effort before the end of the administration. The Trump administration moved to have that responsibility go to the Office of Space Commerce within the Department of Commerce, but made little progress.

Harris didn’t offer a timeline for completing the revisions to commercial space regulations, other than a desire to do so at a “swift pace.”