Orbital debris model around Earth Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Members of a Senate space subcommittee argued that the Commerce Department was not doing enough to implement policies on space traffic management (STM) or staffing the office responsible for it.

At the July 22 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, senators said they were worried that slow action by the Commerce Department to set up a civil STM system as outlined in Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 in 2018 threatened U.S. leadership in space.

“I’m concerned that we’re now three years past SPD-3 was published and the Commerce Department has been slow to develop the open architecture repository that is desperately needed,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the subcommittee. “Instead, it has commissioned more studies to reexamine the already-answered question of which U.S. government agency is best suited to take on the task.”

That open architecture data repository, or OADR, would combine space situational awareness (SSA) data from government and commercial sources that could then be used for STM applications such as warnings of potential collisions. Congress provided funding to the Office of Space Commerce in its fiscal year 2021 spending bill to begin work on OADR pilot projects.

A lack of funding had hindered work on the OADR and other aspects of SPD-3, a former director of the Office of Space Commerce said. “One aspect of this was that we needed to get our heads around the different partnerships and some of the technical opportunities that were available in the commercial industry,” said Kevin O’Connell, who led the office from 2018 until the end of the Trump administration in January. “But, secondly, it really was a resource question: the extent to which we had a very, very small budget in the office.”

Another issue is the lack of leadership at the Office of Space Commerce, which has been without a full-time director since O’Connell’s departure. The office is currently led on an acting basis by Mark Pease, deputy assistant administrator for satellite and information services at NOAA, which hosts the office. “I am also concerned that the administration has not announced a director to take over the Office of Space Commerce,” Lummis said.

O’Connell noted that the office had been without a director for nearly 10 years when he was selected in 2018. “It had an accordingly very tiny budget and a very, very small staff,” he said. That’s not tenable, he suggested, with its assignment of leading civil STM. “This is absolutely the most important mission at this point in time, given what is at stake and given the need to make very rapid progress.”

A provision of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act passed by the Senate in June is the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act, legislation that would codify elements of SPD-3, including giving the Commerce Department the lead for civil STM and establishing an OADR. While the House is not planning to take up the overall bill, senators urged passage of the SPACE Act in some form.

“We need swift action,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), chair of the subcommittee, calling for enactment of the bill.

The Commerce Department was not represented at the hearing, but in a SpaceNews op-ed July 21, Don Graves, deputy commerce secretary, and Rick Spinrad, NOAA administrator, said that the department was working on an OADR prototype that will be ready for initial demonstrations this fall.

They also wrote that, by the fall, they will have results of studies on “procurement strategies, organizational framework, and governance approach” for civil STM services. “With this information, the Commerce Department will propose a strategy for SSA/STM based on the results of our detailed analyses, the results from the prototype demonstrations and community feedback.”

At the hearing, witnesses warned that delays in setting up the system, as well as establishing norms of behavior for safe space operations, not only posed a risk to space safety but also to U.S. leadership. “Ensuring a global commitment to space safety and space sustainability has never been more important,” said Karina Drees, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “Space situational awareness represents the most pressing issue to address today.”

“It is imperative that the United States lead the endeavor of setting these rules,” said Marcus Holzinger, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado. “If other nations lead these efforts, then they are going to be making the rules and regulations and, quite frankly, those will not be to the benefit of our own industry and national enterprises.”

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...