Ross Space Symposium
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he wants his department to help keep the American space industry head of growing global competitors. Credit: Tom Kimmell

WASHINGTON — A spending bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee July 14 once again rejects an administration proposal to combine the Office of Space Commerce with another office and increase its budget to perform space traffic management work.

The committee approved the commerce, justice and science appropriations bill on a 30–22 vote July 14. The committee did not make any changes to the bill beyond a “manager’s amendment” for minor, noncontroversial changes.

The bill includes $1.8 million for the Office of Space Commerce and another $1.8 million for the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office, both located within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal proposed incorporating CRSRA within the Office of Space Commerce and moving it out of NOAA, placing it under the office of the Secretary of Commerce.

The bill rejected that proposed merger, as well as the budget proposal’s request of $15 million for the combined office. “The Committee looks forward to the delivery of the study on this topic” by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), the report accompanying the bill stated in its rejection of the merger and budget increase.

The fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill rejected a similar merger and cited concerns about giving the office responsibility for civil space traffic management, as the White House directed in Space Policy Directive 3 in 2018. The bill directed a report by NAPA to examine what agency would be best suited to handle space traffic management.

In a June 19 interview, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he expects the NAPA report to be completed by August. “We’re hopeful that it will help Congress to clarify the direction going forward, and we’re quite optimistic that, as a result, we’ll get the budgetary relief we need in order to really fulfill the mission,” he said.

The House bill is not the final word on fiscal year 2021 appropriations. The Senate has yet to start work on its 2021 spending bills, but last year Senate appropriators had their own concerns about giving Commerce responsibility for space traffic management, which led to the language in the final bill directing the report.

Other NOAA sections of the spending bill closely match the administration’s request, including funding for geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites. The bill provides an additional $2.678 million for purchasing commercial satellite weather data from last year’s bill, although NOAA had sought a $5 million increase in that program in its proposal.

House appropriators also approved on a 30–22 vote July 14 its transportation, housing and urban development spending bill. That includes $27.555 million for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, the same as the FAA’s request and $1.5 million above its 2020 level. The FAA said it sought the increase in large part to allow the office to hire additional staff to deal with the increasing workload of commercial launch licensing and related regulatory activity.

The FAA is also completing a revision to launch and reentry licensing regulations, with a final rule set for release as soon as September. House appropriators said in a report accompanying the bill that they supported that effort, but remained concerned about the office’s ability to keep up with the pace of licensing activity. “The Committee directs the FAA to inform the Committee immediately if the licensing workload outpaces the Office of Commercial Space’s workforce capabilities and potential productivity gains from technology solutions,” the report states.

The bill includes additional funding for FAA research activities released to commercial space, such as $11 million for commercial space integration and $5.84 million for commercial space safety, both of which were what the agency requested for fiscal year 2021.

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...