While the incoming administration has offered no hints of its views on the subject, there is nothing that would stop it from moving civil space traffic management to the FAA or authorizing the Commerce Department to perform STM, making it easy for the White House to change its mind. Credit: SpaceNews illustration

WASHINGTON — Senate appropriators, frustrated with the lack of progress by the Commerce Department on space traffic management, are threatening to withhold other funding until it gets detailed plans from the agency.

In the report accompanying its version of a commerce, justice and science spending bill for fiscal year 2022, released Oct. 18, Senate appropriators offered $20 million for the Office of Space Commerce (OSC). That is double the $10 million the office both received in 2021 and requested for 2022.

The bulk of that funding is intended to go toward work on space traffic management (STM) capabilities, such as an open architecture data repository that will be the foundation of that effort. Space Policy Directive 3 in 2018 directed that the Commerce Department take over civil STM from the Defense Department.

The office, located within a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), has been slow to make progress on those efforts this year. It has also lacked a full-time director since the beginning of the Biden administration in January.

Senate appropriators made clear in the report they were not pleased with the apparent lack of progress. “The Committee is extremely disappointed with NESDIS’s execution of the fiscal year 2021 funding provided to initiate a space traffic management pilot program, with seemingly little progress made in implementing the pilot,” it stated.

The committee added that, based on that lack of progress, it “questions the ability of NESDIS to manage OSC over the long-term and suggests changing the management structure of OSC so that it reports directly to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere,” or the NOAA administrator.

The report directs NOAA to submit a five-year strategic plan for the Office of Space Commerce “to achieve full operational capability, including out-year mission deliverables and expected budgetary requirements.” To incentivize that work, the report withholds a quarter of the $29.5 million allocated for “executive leadership” at NOAA until the report is delivered.

That funding and language will need to be reconciled with the House version of the fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill, which offers $10 million for the Office of Space Commerce and without the threat to withhold funding. It is a clear signal, though, of the frustration in both Capitol Hill and industry because of the limited progress they’ve seen by the Commerce Department.

“There’s a real lack of governmental leadership in this area,” said Jared Stout, director of congressional and regulatory policy at Meeks, Butera & Israel PLLC, during a panel discussion Oct. 19 at The Aerospace Corporation’s Value of Space Summit. He cited the appropriations language as a sign of that. “They wanted more progress from Commerce.”

“That’s partly because the area is so now and everybody’s still trying to get their arms around what that system would look like,” he said of civil STM. “But I also think it’s partly just a lack of congressional guidance in general on what is our national policy on things like space traffic management and debris mitigation.”

“Some of the structures are there,” he said, such as Space Policy Directive 3, but more needs to be done on both civil STM and the development of norms of behavior for safe space operations. “I think the single biggest thing that we could do to jump-start the development of those norms would be for us to all get on the same page about what we think the legal authorities are that are necessary for the agencies that will have oversight of those norms and best practices.”

The Commerce Department hasn’t commented on the language in the Senate appropriations bill. At a House Science Committee hearing in September, Richard Spinrad, NOAA administrator, said he “embraced” his agency’s work on civil STM, and that an interagency demonstration of the data repository was planned in the next several weeks.

NOAA was also still studying organizational issues for the Office of Space Commerce. “It requires careful consideration of the operational responsibilities and regulatory responsibilities,” he said at that hearing. “We’re looking at alternatives, and we’ll have that analysis of alternatives ready very shortly.”

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...