WASHINGTON – The White House and members of U.S. Congress are in early discussions about how to give the Federal Aviation Administration a role in monitoring the space environment and heading off collisions between commercial satellites, a task currently handled by the U.S. Air Force, sources tell SpaceNews.
The discussion has a sense of urgency, sources said, as several new businesses, many with ties to Silicon Valley, have plans to launch hundreds of satellites in the coming years. With that in mind, proponents are asking Congress to move quickly to find a home for space traffic management.
Any such shift likely would have the blessing of the Pentagon. Leaders from Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command have said they would like to lessen the burden on military space operators so they can concentrate on preparing for potential conflicts in space.
Currently, the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force base in California is responsible for providing services including orbital object tracking and collision avoidance warnings. But with hundreds of new satellites planned for launch in the next few years, the JSpOC’s workload is expected to increase while its funding likely will remain flat or decline.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member of both the House Armed Services and Space, Science and Technology committees, said Nov. 16 the Defense Department has inherited the space traffic control role by default.
“The DoD needs to focused on fighting wars in space,” Bridenstine said at a workshop sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the U.S Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.
While the idea of offloading the military’s space traffic management responsibilities routinely resurfaces every few years, a lack of consensus over who would take over has kept it from making any real progress, although the FAA is the only agency consistently mentioned.
“We keep hearing [the Air Force] shouldn’t be the FAA for space,” Bridenstine said. “Which says to me, maybe the FAA should be the FAA for space.”
Bridenstine stressed that as a conservative Republican he generally opposes new regulations for industry. But in this case, new rules might be necessary he said.
At least some industry officials appear to be on the same page when it comes to space traffic management.
“The real question is, can [the Air Force] continue to play that role,” Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General Corp. of McLean, Virginia, said during a recent panel discussion here. She also said new industry regulations might be necessary to preserve order in the orbital environment.
The impetus for any change in jurisdiction over space traffic management likely would have to come from Congress, sources said, with one possible legislative vehicle being the reauthorization bill for the FAA, whose current authorization expires in March. That bill will be drafted by the House Transportation aviation subcommittee, which is led by Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) as chairman and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) as ranking member. The lawmakers also serve on the House Armed Services Committee. LoBiondo is also a member of the House intelligence committee, putting both men in position to receive national security space briefings..
A spokesman for LoBiondo’s office did not reply to questions from SpaceNews.
In June, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, then the deputy commander of Strategic Command, said the notion of making space traffic management a civilian responsibility is driven in part by the long-term budget outlook.
“As we face budget cuts, as we face personnel cuts … doing air traffic control in space may not be the best use of” military space operators, Kowalski said. “If the answer is ‘we want you to keep doing this for the decade or more,’ then we’ll keep doing it, but there may be other things we can’t do.”