Report endorses giving Commerce Department responsibility for space traffic management

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WASHINGTON — A report commissioned by Congress agreed with the administration that the Commerce Department is the best agency to handle civil space traffic management (STM) responsibilities.

The report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), published Aug. 20, was requested by Congress in fiscal year 2020 appropriations legislation. Some members were skeptical that the department, specifically its Office of Space Commerce (OSC), was the right agency to handle space traffic management, as directed by the White House in Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 in 2018.

The NAPA study, chaired by Michael Dominguez, former assistant secretary of the Air Force, and whose panelists included former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and former NRO Director Marty Faga, examined the ability of OSC to maintain a database of space situational awareness (SSA) data and provide a collision avoidance support service. It did the same for the Defense Department, which has that responsibility today but has long sought to transfer it to another agency, along with NASA and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST.

The study assessed the four agencies on factors such as functional and technical competency, organizational leadership and capacity, partnerships, and customer and stakeholder views. It assigned scores of between 0 and 3 depending on its assessment of each agency’s competencies in each area, which was based on the panel’s research and interviews with dozens of government and industry officials and other experts.

OSC came out on top, with an average score across all factors of 2.9. It was followed by NASA at 2.55, AST at 2.25 and DoD at 1.7. “Following its evaluative criteria, the Panel determines OSC to be best suited to perform STM tasks within the federal government,” the NAPA report concluded.

The report praised OSC for its intent to create a small, agile STM organization that will coordinate with other agencies. “OSC views its STM responsibilities principally as a data management function, rather than principally as a task of managing space traffic,” the report states. “Flexibility and creativity are core features of the OSC vision to serve in this capacity, as innovation, new discoveries, and allowing creative commercial companies to thrive will best serve the strategic interests of the Nation, and the international space community.”

That conclusion was welcomed by the Commerce Department. “I am pleased to see that following an intensive survey of key government and industry stakeholders, NAPA’s findings independently validate that the Department of Commerce is the best civil agency to lead the commercial and international SSA/STM mission,” said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a department statement. “We look forward to working with the Congress to quickly advance this critical space mission.”

A Commerce official, speaking on background, said the department hopes the report can eliminate any congressional skepticism about its ability to handle space traffic management. “What we would really hope for is an understanding that Commerce does have the ball on this,” the official said.

While the report recommended that Congress provide OSC “any required authorities” needed for STM, the official said the department believes it can take on civil STM responsibilities under current law. What’s more important, the official said, is getting additional funding.

“We’re hoping that it’s a pathway to the resources we’ve asked for in [fiscal year] ’21,” the official said. The Commerce Department requested $15 million for OSC in its 2021 budget proposal, with most of that going to STM. The department asked for $10 million for the office in 2020 but received only $2.3 million, a half-million dollars more than 2019. That modest increase was specifically earmarked for the NAPA study. “Other than the funds for the NAPA report, we’ve literally not had an additional penny put to this,” the official said of STM.

Those funding needs will grow with time, the Commerce Department expects, should it win congressional approval to take on civil STM work. A table included in the NAPA report, using data provided by the department, projected STM efforts to grow from $15 million in fiscal year 2021 to as high as $72.1 million in 2024. That includes $20–25 million in commercial SSA data purchases to augment the data provided by the Defense Department.

“We really think that resources are urgent at this point,” the official said, noting the report had already been briefed to both House and Senate appropriations staff. “We would like it to be understood that we have the lead role on this on behalf of the U.S. government.”