"Key nonpolitical staff who were instrumental in developing and implementing the vision for a revitalized Office of Space Commerce are already leaving, just as the civil space situational awareness pilot program is finally getting underway," writes Brian Weeden. Credit: SpaceNews photo illustration

In the absence of an active push, attempts to create organizational change and improvement tend to revert to the way things used to be. After three years of an active push to increase the role of the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) in promoting and enabling commercial space activities, that vision is beginning to revert to the way things used to be. Immediate intervention is needed by the new leadership at the Department of Commerce to prevent a complete loss of progress and yet another delay in reshaping U.S. efforts to support and leverage the burgeoning commercial space sector.

Changing Role for the Office of Space Commerce

Over the last few years, OSC has emerged as a key agency supporting the U.S. commercial space sector. Current U.S. law and national space policy designates OSC as the lead agency for representing and promoting commercial perspectives within interagency discussions, developing a civil space situational awareness pilot program that improves our ability to detect and prevent on-orbit collisions, modernizing the regulation and oversight of commercial space activities, and promoting the U.S. commercial space sector globally. All of these lines of effort are critical to ensuring that the commercial space sector continues to grow and provide the innovation and new capabilities that support U.S. national security, economic development, and societal benefits.

OSC was originally created in 1988 with goals of promoting the commercialization of space and the U.S. commercial space sector. But for most of its existence it did not receive much attention, and by the end of 2016 it had a permanent staff of three people and an annual budget of $500,000.

This changed dramatically under the Trump administration. In July 2018, Kevin O’Connell was brought in as the new director of OSC, a position that had not been filled for several years and was given significant political support from the Secretary of Commerce and the White House to begin to rebuild the office toward the original vision. Under O’Connell’s leadership, additional staff was added and complemented by “loans” of expertise from across the department. The office was empowered by administration leadership to not only take on the mantle of acting as the advocate for commercial space within the U.S. government but also to help lead the modernization of U.S. government oversight and regulation of private sector space activities.

This leadership role has bipartisan roots. Following the 2010 National Space Policy, the Obama administration started efforts to update export controls, reform licensing of commercial remote sensing, and establish a national space traffic management (STM) regime. Additionally, there was a push to establish “mission authorization” to address the gap between existing regulatory powers and the innovative new missions that the commercial sector was developing. Some of these efforts were more successful than others, and some were intended to go to the Department of Transportation instead of Commerce, but there was significant agreement on the core problems that need to be solved.

Under the Trump administration, significant progress was made on these same goals. Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3) created the first formal U.S. policy on STM and cemented the role of OSC in taking on the responsibility for creating civil space situational awareness capabilities and creating the foundation for a future STM regime. OSC also played a significant role in implementing an overhaul of commercial remote sensing regulations and greatly increased its outreach and engagement with the commercial space sector. And after two years of discussion, OSC was able to convince Congress to authorize and fund a pilot program for civil SSA in December 2020. The U.S. space industry was widely supportive of these enhanced roles for OSC.

The Need for Action

Unfortunately, many of these changes were not formalized before the change of administration. OSC was not elevated into a separate bureau, and instead was left within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and thus vulnerable to reversion once the top-down political push disappeared and the existing organizational inertia took over. That reversion is understandable, given NOAA’s important focus on Earth remote sensing, but also frustrating given the long and meandering process over the last decade to try and implement civil SSA, STM, and mission authorization to address widely-recognized challenges. 

As it stands, OSC may still muddle through the civil SSA pilot program but is unlikely to achieve the other policy goals and directives assigned to it. Those goals — promoting commercial space, acting as its champion within the government, fostering development of commercial standards and norms of behavior, and addressing regulatory gaps — require political will to finish implementing the expanded vision for OSC. Another key is continuing the push to move OSC out from underneath NOAA and into a separate Bureau, which is necessary for it to have the independence it needs to establish a new organizational culture and capacity.

The Biden administration needs to act quickly to address this situation before it is too late. Key nonpolitical staff who were instrumental in developing and implementing the vision for a revitalized OSC are already leaving, just as the civil SSA pilot program is finally getting underway. The new leadership at the Department of Commerce needs to first and foremost halt additional changes and move with utmost speed to appoint a new director of OSC. That director needs to be empowered to continue the work started over the two previous administrations and now enshrined in the 2020 U.S. National Space Policy. Fully meeting this vision will likely mean continuing to push for the creation of a separate Bureau of Space Commerce. 

There has been strong bipartisan support over the last two administrations that we need to modernize the way that the U.S. government supports and oversees commercial space activities. Increasing the promotion of commercial perspectives within interagency discussions and globally, developing civil space situational awareness capabilities, and laying the foundation for space traffic management are key elements of this modernization. OSC has made significant strides toward implementing these new roles and we cannot afford more delays.

Brian Weeden is the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the long-term sustainable use of space for benefits on Earth. He is a former U.S. Air Force officer and is a partner in Lquinox Consulting, LLC.