LAS VEGAS — Ongoing development of a regulatory framework for overseeing new commercial space activity is critical to NASA’s long-term exploration plans that will rely increasing on the private sector, the agency’s deputy administrator said.

In an Oct. 24 speech at AIAA’s ASCEND conference here, NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said the agency supported ongoing work by the National Space Council to develop what is known as “mission authorization,” a regulatory framework to comply with treaty requirements to oversee commercial missions not currently licensed by other agencies.

“We are leaning heavily on our commercial partners. Our industry needs a clear, timely and consistent path to success and safety,” she said, citing “the risk to all space activities of not having some form of coordinated oversight that has clarity for both NASA and the industry.”

Both industry and government have been pushing for years to create a mission authorization system that would provide “authorization and continuing supervision,” in the words of Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty, for commercial space activities not overseen today by government agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those agencies currently license launch and reentry, communications and remote sensing, respectively.

Melroy cited as examples of activities that would benefit from mission authorization commercial lunar landers and space stations. NASA is relying on commercial landers to deliver cargo and astronauts to the lunar surface while it supports development of commercial space stations as successors to the International Space Station.

“I just can’t say enough how vitally important it is that we succeed in coming up with the right framework,” she said. “Commercial partners are critical to the success of not just NASA but to our country and, I believe, the world.”

Mission authorization would help companies by reducing uncertainty about who will regulate them and how, she argued. “The U.S. has to have a clear front door to industry,” she said. “Industry must be able to secure the regulatory approvals needed to partner with NASA in order to keep everyone safe. On the other side, it’s important that the in-space authorization policy be very clear and straightforward to understand.”

Another benefit of the policy, she said, would be to harmonize regulations with other nations. “It’s come up multiple times among the Artemis Accords signatories. But until we have one for novel space activities in deep space, it’s kind of a hard conversation to have.”

She said she was “pleased” with the work so far by the National Space Council on developing a mission authorization framework as well as the cooperation offered by agencies such as the Commerce and Transportation Departments and the FCC. “As we move forward, we will need to continue to work together to ensure that there’s a good balance between adherence to responsible space behavior and nurturing our space economy.”

Melroy did not give any details about what that mission authorization framework would look like, other than it would likely include both a policy and proposed legislation. She also did not say when she expected that framework to be published.

At the most recent public meeting of the National Space Council in September 2022, Vice President Kamala Harris requested proposals from agencies on how to regulate “commercial novel space activities” within six months. Officials have since said they are reviewing those proposals, but offered little detail about what might be included in a mission authorization framework or its timetable for release.

Melroy emphasized, amid long-running debates about which agency should handle mission authorization, that NASA was not interested in regulating commercial space activities. “NASA is not a regulator, but I hope I’ve made the case for you that this issue is vitally important to us and to our mission, and we’re going to stay involved.”

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...