Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee, said she opposed a bill that "rubber stamps" the administration's space traffic management policy without additional study. Credit: House Science Committee webcast

RENTON, Wash. — The House Science Committee approved a bill June 27 that would give the Commerce Department new responsibilities for space traffic management despite opposition by some Democrats that the bill “rubber stamps” the administration’s space policy.

The committee favorably reported on a voice vote H.R. 6226, the American Space Situational Awareness and Framework for Entity (SAFE) Management Act. The legislation, announced by the committee June 22, would authorize the Commerce Department to provide space traffic management services, such as collision warnings, to civil and commercial satellite operators within one year of the bill’s enactment.

The bill authorizes NASA to develop a space traffic management science and technology plan, outlining research to be done to improve work in the area. It also calls on the Commerce Department to develop a pilot program for space traffic coordination.

The bill largely follows Space Policy Directive 3 signed by President Trump June 18, which assigns authority for civil space traffic management work to the Commerce Department. The Defense Department, who currently carries out that work, would continue to collect space situational awareness data for its own needs. It would provide a version of its catalog to Commerce, who could then augment with data from commercial or international sources.

“The American Space SAFE Management Act is the culmination of years of work that this committee has undertaken,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee and lead sponsor of the bill. He noted the bill has “the full support” of the administration and the National Space Council, as well as a number of companies and industry organizations.

However, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), objected to the bill. “I do not support our committee rubber-stamping the half-baked efforts of the Trump administration to address the issue,” she said.

She noted that previous studies had looked at moving that responsibility to the Department of Transportation, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, only to have the current administration seek to move it to the Commerce Department instead. “This is in spite of the fact that Commerce has no existing infrastructure or expertise to support this important work,” she said. “In fact, no credible reason has been articulated for why the Commerce Department is the best place to house the function.”

She offered an amendment that would have replaced the bill with language instructing the National Academies to undertake a one-year study on which agency is best suited to handling space traffic management. That study, she said, would ensure that Congress fully understood the issue before deciding what agency should have that responsibility.

“We’re once again rushing to a markup without first having done our homework and our job as legislators,” she said.

Smith said there was no need for a new study given past studies on the topic, although those earlier reports didn’t specifically address if Commerce was the best agency to handle civil space traffic management. “It is time for us to act,” he said, citing a hearing on the topic June 22 by the space subcommittee, held jointly with the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. “Time is critical.”

The committee rejected Johnson’s amendment on a vote of 13 to 17. Most Democrats voted in favor of the amendment, but two, Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), opposed the amendment. Those two members are also co-sponsors of the bill.

The committee did approve on a voice vote a manager’s amendment making several changes to the bill that Smith said arose out of discussions after the bill was released last week. Those changes include requiring the Secretaries of Commerce and Defense to develop a transition plan for space traffic management to avoid any gap in such services. It also gives Commerce the authority to leverage resources and workforces of any federal agency needed, compared to the original bill that mentioned on support from NASA.

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...