Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said at a May 14 hearing of his space subcommittee that the proposed Space Force could play a role protecting commercial activities in space. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — While most of the debate about establishing a Space Force within the Defense Department has centered on its national security implications, a recent Senate hearing examined how it could bolster growing commercial activity in space.

The May 14 hearing by Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee was an opportunity by its chairman, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), to argue that a Space Force was essential to protect commercial and civil space activities from unspecified threats.

“A Space Force may well prove necessary to help provide certainty in ensuring that these efforts are successful, have longevity and are not to be subjected to the whims of rogue or hostile nations,” he said in his opening remarks, at one point likening the need for a Space Force to the role naval forces play in combating piracy on the high seas.

Witnesses agreed that a Space Force could play a role in protecting commercial space activities. “If commercial industry is to continue to make those investments, and we’re talking about big investments,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, “they need to have assurances that their investments are going to be safe and protected.” He noted that he supported earlier proposals for a Space Force when he served in the House.

“I firmly believe that a strong military presence will very much encourage the growth” of the commercial space industry, said Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce in the Commerce Department, citing projections that the space industry could be worth a trillion dollars or more annually in the next two decades. That’s true, he said, of both established space industries and emerging ones. “Those can only benefit from a robust U.S. military presence in space.”

Robert Cardillo, who stepped down as the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency earlier this year, concurred. “Anything that reduces uncertainty, I think, will increase the opportunity for future investment.”

Neither Cruz nor the witnesses, though, discussed specific roles for the Space Force that would protect civil and commercial space activities, or threats those activities face.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), focused her remarks on a specific threat: orbital debris. “There are currently very few rules of the road” for space activities, she said. Satellites operators, for example, aren’t required to maneuver their satellites when notified of a potential collision. “The United States should lead the way by setting unified standards for all operators in space.”

That led to a later discussion about what agency should have responsibility for civil space traffic management. Space Policy Directive 3 in June 2018 assigned that responsibility to the Commerce Department, but progress in transferring that work from the Defense Department has been slow, and some in Congress continue to advocate for giving it to the Federal Aviation Administration within the Transportation Department.

“There are pros and cons on both sides,” said Pamela Melroy, a former astronaut who later served as deputy associate administrator in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and is now in the private sector. FAA had previously worked closely with the Air Force about planning to take over civil space traffic management work, “and had many people who have been thinking about this for a long time, and actually ready to catch the football that they knew was coming at them.” However, she said, the directive to assign it to Commerce has the advantage of concentrating that work with other oversight of commercial space activities also assigned to that department.

Lt. Gen. David D. Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, said that the Air Force continues to have “de facto” responsibility for space traffic management, but that it is willing to transfer that role to a civil agency. “The Air Force is an armed service. It is not a regulatory agency,” he said. “So, I will say we will do this job as long as the nation and the world requires, but it’s probably best for civil or other organizations.”

Melroy concluded the executive branch is probably best-positioned to decide whether Commerce or Transportation should have responsibility for civil space traffic management. “The problem is we have a third option here, and that’s where we’re at right now: we don’t have anyone,” she said. “I would argue that’s the worst option.”

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...