Kevin O'Connell
Kevin O'Connell, seen here testifying at a February 2018 National Space Council meeting, said his priorities as director of the Office of Space Commerce include advocating for and working with industry as well as regulatory reform. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The new director of the Office of Space Commerce, a long-neglected entity set to gain more influence under the Trump administration’s space policy reforms, says his initial priorities are on engaging with and advocating for industry and dealing with regulatory issues.

In an Aug. 20 speech at a space conference at Arizona State University, Kevin O’Connell, who started as director of the office six weeks earlier, outlined a four-pronged strategy for the small office as its influence under the administration’s space policy grows.

“Our initial strategy for the Office of Space Commerce involves four basic elements: advocacy, moving regulatory barriers, industry engagement and improving our understanding” of the space industry’s benefits, he said.

The advocacy role, he said, has two “very complex” elements, international and domestic. The international aspect is intended to ensure American companies “have fair market access and are able to compete freely” as other countries develop their own space regulatory systems. Domestic advocacy is designed to give companies “fair and rigorous treatment” as the U.S. government develops its own space capabilities.

The regulatory role encompasses the growing responsibility his office will have under regulatory reforms planned by the administration, such as those in Space Policy Directive 2 that seek to ultimately turn the office into a “one-stop shop” for most commercial space regulatory activities. He cited as one example an ongoing notice of proposed rulemaking for commercial remote sensing regulatory reforms.

That work, he argued, requires working with industry. “Regulations are often best considered when they have industry input — usually not individual company input so much as industry-level input — so that is a place we’re hoping to encourage people to put in more information,” he said.

O’Connell said broader engagement with industry on issues beyond regulation is another priority. “We’ve had literally hundreds of requests for meetings,” he said. “What I’m seeking right away is a way to effectively, and in an organized way, engage industry.”

He later called interactions with industry as “quite literally the number one challenge” his office faces. He said he was looking for efficient ways, like “templated products,” for industry input. “We have to find a way to be organized and efficient so we can gather many views. By gathering those views, we start to see an industry perspective on things.”

While the office is seeking input from industry on issues like regulations, O’Connell said he wants his office to examine what information it can provide to industry to help it. “We’re looking for information that you all could benefit from, either specific market information, global market information, or ideas for U.S. government emerging market opportunities,” he said.

That ties into a final priority for the office, “understanding and better describing the impact of space on Earth,” he said. “While we’re good at counting certain metrics for the space industry, I don’t think we’ve yet captured a rich understanding of the productivity gains” enabled by space. Such work, he argued, could “energize the public” to support space exploration activities beyond Earth.

All that is being done by an office that remains very small. The Commerce Department has proposed merging the Office of Space Commerce with the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office and moving it so that it reports directly to the Secretary of Commerce. Ultimately that office would also have liaisons from other Commerce Department offices, becoming an entity known as the Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise (SPACE) Administration.

However, according to its website, the office currently has only two analysts and an administrative officer in addition to O’Connell. In his speech, he emphasized the ability to draw on an ad hoc group called the “Space Team” within Commerce that includes people from various department offices that have space-related activities.

“I’ve got 25 to 30 people from throughout the department that I can leverage,” he said. “I don’t have them all full-time.”

O’Connell also praised Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for his interest in the topic. “The secretary has a deep and infectious interest in space issues that has brought life to these ideas at the Department of Commerce,” he said.

Ross announced the hiring of O’Connell at the June 18 meeting of the National Space Council at the White House. The two met in February, O’Connell recalled, and had an hour-long conversation on space issues that included Ross bringing up congressional testimony by O’Connell in 2016 lamenting that the Office of Space Commerce had not had a permanent director for years.

A week later, O’Connell recalled, he was at the Kennedy Space Center to testify at another meeting of the National Space Council. “Vice President Mike Pence walked up to me and, without batting an eye, shook my hand and said, ‘Kevin, congratulations and thanks for agreeing to come up help us,’” he said. “And that’s how I’m in the job where I am today.”

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...