This op-ed originally appeared in the July 29, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
On July 9, at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce small satellite roundtable, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai surprised the audience by making an announcement — a draft order to make it easier and cheaper to license small satellites.
However, anyone who follows Pai’s energetic leadership style should have not been surprised. Under his watch, the FCC has steadily increased capacity and expertise to improve its statutory function to regulate the commercial space industry. In 2018 alone, the FCC, under 47 CFR Part 25, approved operating authority for 13,237 satellites.
As described by Pai, this new draft order would establish a new regulatory regime for smallsat applicants to opt for alternative licensing procedures, making it easier for entrepreneurs and startups to develop and deploy satellites. Additional elements of the directive include radio-frequency interference protection for critical communication links and more effective debris mitigation.
With its unique alpha-to-omega regulatory sway over the satellite industry, the FCC plays an outsized role in shaping the nascent commercial space industry.
The timing of the proposed FCC streamlined licensing process is key —the fledgling U.S. smallsat sector needs a stronger footing upon which to stand in the global market. As SmallSat Alliance President Steve Nixon noted, applications for low Earth orbit are in the $450,000 range. Ironically, that’s about what many LEO satellites cost to manufacture.
As reported by SpaceNews, the quickening speed at which small satellites can be built and launched was a motivation for the FCC’s move to issue responsive regulations.
Despite the raft of recent federal agency successes in advancing commercial space interests, there is a danger of a budgetary impasse harming the nation’s strategic ambitions, including NASA’s game-changing Space Launch System (SLS) and Artemis programs. The vision and leadership of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to refocus the agency on a robust return to human spaceflight requires congressional assent and adequate funding.
While the era of substantive efforts to review and renew the function of government (as exemplified by the 1980s five-year, bipartisan Goldwater-Nichols overhaul of the military services) is certainly over, new frameworks of governance have begun to emerge. In the commercial space sector, a transparent partnership between regulators and industry innovators is taking place.
In his remarks, Pai went further than merely announcing the proposed rulemaking. He encouraged the audience and the broader satellite industry to delve into the text and give the FCC feedback on the draft: “If you have suggestions, let us know.” He meant that.
Pai’s zeal in administering his office is conspicuous in an otherwise ebbing period of proactive government.
Fortunately, Pai has familiar company among other senior officials, including the Commerce Department’s Kevin O’Connell, FAA’s Kelvin Coleman, and the National Space Council’s Scott Pace. All three are moving quickly to implement major bureaucratic changes to encourage and facilitate innovation and investment in the domestic space sector.
Notwithstanding the success of efforts underway, the need for a more robust approach to commercial space is clear. Today, once operational, the day-to-day functioning of spacecraft on-orbit or beyond remains effectively outside the regulatory grasp of any governmental authority.
Recent steps such as the FCC’s smallsat license streamlining are certainly positive and in the right direction, but a far more robust response is required as megaconstellations are deployed and industrial use of low Earth orbit expands.
Strong leadership will be necessary to avoid overlapping and inconsistent regulations which create uncertainty in markets and increase the cost of doing business. With history as a guide, the U.S. is the singular nation capable of leading the way to establish and promote standards for the safety, stability, and sustainability of the commercial space sector.
Christian Zur serves as council executive to the Chamber’s Procurement and Space Industry Council and specializes in federal agency regulatory and legislative acquisition initiatives. In his current capacity, he acts as liaison between Chamber member companies and Congress on defense and space policy, and represents the Chamber on numerous national security industry coalitions.