Orbital debris illustration. Credit: ESA

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee introduced a bill Oct. 21 to formally give the Commerce Department space traffic management (STM) responsibilities, but the funding required to carry out that work remains uncertain.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) announced he had introduced the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency, or SPACE, Act, a bill intended to codify portions of Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 that transfer responsibility for civil STM from the Defense Department to Commerce.

The bill would allow the Commerce Department to collect space situational awareness data from both U.S. government agencies and foreign and commercial sources, as well as provide such data and related services to government and commercial organizations. It also indemnifies the government from legal action stemming from the use of such data and services.

That work would be led by the Office of Space Commerce, although the bill elevates that office, currently within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to a bureau led by a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary reporting to the Secretary of Commerce. That promotion of the office to a bureau has been proposed in other legislation in recent years, but never enacted.

“The SPACE Act would empower the Department of Commerce to track this debris and issue collision warnings by leveraging its technical expertise and partnerships with the private sector,” Wicker said in a statement. “This legislation is critical to keeping low Earth orbit safe for exploration and protecting our satellite infrastructure.”

Wicker raised the issue of who should be responsible for civil STM at a Sept. 30 hearing of his committee on NASA programs. “The Department of Commerce intends to, or has taken over, the space situational awareness mission for civil and commercial entities. Do you support that?” he asked NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the sole witness at that hearing.

Bridenstine said he did, and that there was a broad consensus within the administration for that shift. “The Department of Commerce should be picking up these missions” under SPD-3, he said. “But they don’t have the authorities provided by Congress at this point, nor do they have the appropriations provided by Congress right now. So, we’re kind of in limbo.” He added he would be “very supportive” of language in an authorization bill formally assigning civil STM work to the Commerce Department.

Commerce Department officials have played down the need for a formal authorization, arguing that current laws and regulations would allow them to take on civil STM work. “We have surveyed DOC’s legal authorities and verified that existing authorities are sufficient to conduct the SPD-3 mission responsibilities,” Mark Daley, deputy for operations at the Office of Space Commerce, said at an Oct. 21 ASCENDxSummit webinar about STM.

The bigger challenge is funding. While Wicker’s bill authorizes $15 million for the Office of Space Commerce in fiscal year 2021, the same amount requested by the Commerce Department in its budget proposal, Congress has yet to appropriate that funding. A House spending bill passed in July rejected the request, stating that it was awaiting a report requested in the fiscal year 2020 omnibus spending bill regarding which agency was best suited for civil STM.

That study, conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and released Aug. 20, concluded that the Office of Space Commerce was the best agency for that role, ranking ahead of the Defense Department, Federal Aviation Administration and NASA. The report also called on Congress to adequately fund the office to carry out that work.

Commerce Department officials hope the NAPA report will convince congressional appropriators to provide the requested funding for civil STM work. “We’ve been meeting routinely now with congressional staff, some congressional members, to explain why this is so important,” Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce, said at an Oct. 13 SpaceNews webinar on STM. “We’re thrilled, frankly, that NAPA validates many of the approaches that we had already had underway within resources, and we think that helps us make a much stronger case for the resources that we’ve asked for in ’21 and beyond.”

O’Connell said that, if Congress does provide the funding, the office is ready to move forward, primarily working on an “open architecture data repository” that would combine space situational awareness data from the Defense Department with that from commercial and international sources. The initial version of that system would be operational by the end of 2021, he said, producing conjunction warnings similar to what the Defense Department currently provides to satellite operators.

It will also a platform on which the office and others can create new services. “We’ll have an open place from which we can start to experiment,” he said.

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...