While the incoming administration has offered no hints of its views on the subject, there is nothing that would stop it from moving civil space traffic management to the FAA or authorizing the Commerce Department to perform STM, making it easy for the White House to change its mind. Credit: SpaceNews illustration

WASHINGTON — Three space industry groups are asking the Commerce Department to commit to continued support and funding for the Office of Space Commerce.

In a March 9 letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the Aerospace Industries Association, Commercial Spaceflight Federation and Satellite Industry Association called for the department to fund the small office at a level “reflective of its critical role” supporting the space industry.

“Given the constant developments, from start-ups to new technologies in the space sector, and the uncertainties of the post-pandemic and changing regulatory environment globally, the space industry requires a strong U.S. Office of Space Commerce to drive continued growth here and abroad for U.S. space industry,” the organizations wrote.

The office, located within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has gone through ups and downs in recent years. The office was largely neglected during the Obama administration, which did not appoint a director. In 2018, the Trump administration appointed Kevin O’Connell as director, who held the post through the end of the administration in January.

The office took on a higher profile during the Trump administration, particularly in the area of space traffic management (STM). Space Policy Directive 3 in June 2018 directed the Commerce Department, through the Office of Space Commerce, to take over civil STM work from the Defense Department, a transition that is ongoing. It also supported activities such as promoting the commercial space industry and measuring its size.

Before this year the office received an annual budget of $1.8 million, but the fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill provided the office $10 million. That includes both additional funding for an STM pilot program as well as absorbing the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office within NOAA, responsible for licensing commercial imaging systems.

The office is led on an acting basis by Mark Paese, NOAA deputy assistant administrator for satellite and information services. In their letter, though, industry groups appeared concerned about the effect the lack of a permanent director would have on the office and its small staff. “Retaining staff in the Office of Space Commerce to continue to carry out its work until a new Director is named is critical to the success of our industry on a variety of fronts,” they wrote.

The Commerce Department has been silent about its plans for the Office of Space Commerce. Raimondo, sworn in as commerce secretary March 3 after the Senate confirmed her on an 84–15 vote, was previously governor of Rhode Island, and space issues did not come up in her confirmation hearing. The department’s office of public affairs did not respond to a request for comment March 10 about the industry groups’ letter.

Many other space-related leadership positions in the federal government also remain unfilled. The Biden administration has yet to nominate individuals to serve as administrator of NASA, administrator of NOAA and secretary of the Air Force, all positions that require Senate confirmation.

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...