Op-ed | Don’t wait for a disaster: Industry-led space traffic management

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In 1956, a mid-air collision between two commercial planes above the Grand Canyon killed all 128 passengers. The rapid growth of commercial air traffic combined with a lag in air traffic control (ATC) improvements made such a disaster inevitable. Federal budget cuts prevented the government-operated ATC framework from establishing the necessary radar systems to improve air traffic safety. Unfortunately, it took the 1956 mid-air collision to trigger the funding and reforms needed to improve air safety.

Today, the insufficient space traffic management (STM) framework combined with a rapidly growing commercial space industry mirrors the conditions of the crisis experienced by the aviation community in 1956. The existing ad hoc STM framework fails to address the growing risks of accidental space collisions, and proposed government reforms are too slow or stalled. History indicates that it will take a crisis for any government-led STM solution to receive the necessary funding and reforms. Thus, the commercial space industry needs to step in now.

Scott Pace, the former executive secretary of the National Space Council, argued that we stand at an inflection point, and the best option may be for satellite owners and operators to pursue their own solutions for STM outside of government. Proactive action by the commercial space industry now can fill the gap left by a slow government reform process.

The National Space Council and the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) should aim to convince the commercial space industry to take on a greater role to support STM functions until the OSC can adequately do so. This action has precedent. As commercial air traffic experienced its first era of expansion in the 1930s, the Bureau of Air Commerce convinced commercial air operators to take on ATC operations until the bureau could receive the necessary funding. The growing risk of accidental space collisions will not wait for the ideal STM framework to emerge. A commercial space industry-led STM framework is the most timely, practical, and attainable solution and delivers three advantages: 

First, it swiftly assures space safety. Accidental space collisions have only become more probable since the delays in fully implementing needed reforms the White House outlined with Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3) in 2018. Emerging megaconstellations of satellites will cause this risk to grow greater and faster than expected. Fortunately, the commercial space industry has already demonstrated its ability to enable safer space operations. For example, Space Data Association members coordinate their operations in GEO. LeoLabs, meanwhile, has demonstrated it can deploy ground-based radars in less than one year that help provide real-time STM services.  

Second, it gives the government reform process badly needed time. The Commerce Department’s lack of progress in initiating a space traffic management pilot program indicates the first of many anticipated delays in the department assuming STM services. It will take time and money to populate the Open Architecture Data Repository, assess and evaluate commercial data sources, and implement its regulatory functions. In the meantime, the commercial space industry should promote and expand the use of commercial STM services and traffic management cooperation. 

Finally, it sparks growth and innovation. Because the government cannot keep pace with the space industry’s safety needs, it should make a deliberate effort to promote market-oriented reforms that incentivize commercial solutions. Innovation is critical as space traffic becomes more congested and complex. All actors will need higher-quality STM products and services. Further, innovation enables the commercial space industry to refine rules of the road and best practices that can influence future regulatory reforms.  

There is concern that such an option fails to adequately ensure the sustainable safety of the space domain. However, the commercial space industry has every incentive to act responsibly to avert collisions and keep space sustainable for all users. The spat between SpaceX and OneWeb earlier this year turned out to be an example of a successful coordination and data exchange, helping to avert a potential collision. 

Let’s not wait for a crisis. Let’s act now to prevent a catastrophic collision in space. Mark Twain’s comment, “history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme,” describes the parallel conditions between the aviation industry then and the space industry now. Disaster looms. This time, however, we can do something to prevent it. We have the resolve. We have the commercial capabilities. We should act now to increase the safety of the space environment.

Benjamin Staats is a graduate student at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, a U.S. Army space operations officer and a Schriever Space Scholar graduate from the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army.