Space Council meeting
The National Space Council, meeting Feb. 21 at the Kennedy Space Center, heard testimony about both the threats and opportunities of China's space program. Credit: NASA/KSC

WASHINGTON — As the National Space Council prepares for its third public meeting, its activities to date have won widespread praise in the space community, even as there is some skepticism about the effectiveness of the council’s advisory group that will soon meet for the first time.

The council is scheduled to meet June 18 at the White House, after meetings in October at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center and in February at the Kennedy Space Center. Details about the meeting have not been disclosed, nor even the time: as of June 15 the event was listed on the schedule of upcoming events broadcast on NASA Television but with a time of “TBD.”

Industry sources, though, expect that one topic of the meeting will be to formalize a draft space traffic management policy that Vice President Mike Pence announced in an April 16 speech at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Officials have, in recent days, dropped hints that the policy will be enacted soon as Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3.

“We’re looking forward to a follow-on effort, we hope, in the near future, Space Policy Directive 3, which will deal with space traffic management,” said Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, at a June 14 meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) here.

If it is formally announced at the council meeting, SPD-3 will follow on the heels of SPD-1, signed by President Trump in December to formally direct NASA to return humans to the moon, and SPD-2, signed May 24, that calls on commercial space regulatory reform in several areas.

The National Space Council’s pace of activity has been welcomed by those both inside and outside the government. “It’s very much less bureaucratic and has a lot less layers of iterative working groups going on” than past interagency structures for creating space policy, said Jason Kim, senior policy analyst at the Office of Space Commerce.

Kim, speaking during a panel session at an American Bar Association space law symposium here June 7, said that lack of bureaucracy has allow the council to get policies done more quickly. “They’re very much focused on getting stuff done very expeditiously,” he said.

“It’s very important to point out, and take note of, the fact that this space council is very different from previous space councils,” said Jim Muncy, principal of PoliSpace, on that panel. He cited as an example the space council in the Nixon administration that produced expansive post-Apollo human spaceflight plans that were largely ignored or rejected by the White House and Congress.

“There’s really a focus on implementation” with the current council, he said, something lacking in previous space policy efforts. “This space council is absolutely vital.”

That focus on implementation is apparent in language in SPD-2 that calls on the Department of Transportation, via the FAA, to develop streamlined regulations for commercial launches and reentries. A typical FAA rulemaking process takes several years, but SPD-2 requires a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to be completed by Feb. 1, 2019.

“For a substantial rule, it takes approximately five to six years to get an NPRM, and another year or so after that for the normal process of public comment and final adjudication and final publication of the rule,” Muncy said. “The space council directed that the NPRM for a whole new set of launch rules be published on Feb. 1. The space industry tremendously appreciates the help of the National Space Council in setting challenging deadlines.”

At the June 14 COMSTAC meeting, Carl Burleson, acting deputy administrator of the FAA, acknowledged that the language in SPD-2 forced it to speed up its rulemaking process. “Because of the commitment of this administration, we’ve been able to get the commitment of different parts of the rulemaking process,” including agencies outside the FAA, to accelerate the process, he said.

Some, though, believe that the National Space Council is leaving out one key federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC deals with satellite spectrum issues, which was also a topic of SPD-2, and as part of its licensing process ensures companies comply with orbital debris mitigation guidelines.

“The FCC should have a seat at the table,” Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner, said in an April 17 statement. “It’s a glaring omission that this agency does not, because through our oversight of the airwaves and licensing of satellite services, we have an important role ensuring the viability of space for future generations.”

At the June 7 space law panel, Kim said that since the FCC is an independent agency that doesn’t directly work for the president, it’s not included among the agencies that are represented on the council. “That’s unfortunate, because it would be helpful to have an FCC voice at the table,” he said.

Muncy said that spectrum issues are represented on the council through the Commerce Department and its National Telecommunications and Information Administration. “That’s one of the reasons why the administration has identified the Secretary of Commerce as a go-to person licensing of in-space activities, because frequency issues and FCC coordination is going to be a very important role to play there,” he said.

Starting up the Users’ Advisory Group

The day after the National Space Council meeting, its Users’ Advisory Group (UAG) will meet for the first time at NASA Headquarters. The UAG members were announced at the February space council meeting, and Pence said in April that retired Admiral James Ellis, former head of U.S. Strategic Command, will chair the group.

The meeting, according to a Federal Register notice, will focus on topics that the UAG will address, followed by development of a work plan and subcommittees to implement that work. The announcement didn’t indicate what specific topics were under consideration.

Some in industry have raised questions about the usefulness of the UAG given that many agencies who are on the council have their own advisory mechanisms, including an extensive set of NASA committees, the FAA’s COMSTAC, and the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing that serves the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office that licenses commercial satellite imaging systems.

Those individual advisory groups will have a role providing input for the council’s work independent of the UAG, Pace said at the COMSTAC meeting. “I need to care about what the industry as a whole needs,” he said. “As a consolidation and prioritization function, advisory groups are crucial.”

The UAG membership is heavily weighted towards business, with presidents and chief executives of most major aerospace companies included among its members, as well as some from smaller companies in the sector. That’s one potential flaw in the group, Muncy said.

“What’s missing is the general population, particularly young people,” he said. “It would be nice to see some more representatives of taxpayers and future generations involved.”

“Definitely agree, although at least there is one younger voice,” Tim Ellis, the 27-year-old chief executive of small launch vehicle startup Relativity Space and one of the members of the UAG, tweeted June 8. “I’m hoping to bring some of that young perspective to the conversation — we need fresh bold ideas not just on vision and direction, but also execution.”

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...