WASHINGTON — As officials from several federal agencies expressed support for a White House proposal for oversight of novel space activities, the chair of a key Senate subcommittee raised concerns about it.

At a Dec. 13 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), chair of the subcommittee, said that while she welcomed the mission authorization legislative proposal released by the National Space Council Nov. 15, there were a number of problems with it.

“I am heartened that the administration is working on this critical issue, but the proposal contains numerous ambiguities, new undefined terms and broad grants of open-ended authority,” she said.

Sinema did not elaborate on those concerns, and she left the hearing shortly after her opening statement. She did state that she had asked the National Space Council to participate in the hearing, but that the White House declined to offer someone.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), also expressed disappointment that the council did not offer a witness for the hearing. He said he supported “balanced, light-tough policies that empower, not hinder, ingenuity and innovation and the get the government out of the way.”

One major criticism of the White House proposal is that it splits mission authorization between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce. The Department of Transportation, through the Federal Aviation Administration, would be responsible for human spaceflight as well as in-space transportation of goods, while the Department of Commerce, through the Office of Space Commerce, would handle all other commercial space activities not currently regulated by the FAA or other agencies.

The House Science Committee advanced a bill Nov. 29 that would take a different approach, assigning mission authorization entirely to the Department of Commerce. An industry group, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), criticized the dual-agency approach because it could result in “duplicative and conflicting” requirements between the two agencies, and out of concerns that it would further burden the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which handles launch and reentry licensing.

The National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group also questioned that approach. During a Dec. 1 meeting of the committee, a subcommittee offered 12 recommendations for handling mission authorization, among them having “one clear agency industry works with for this kind of authorization to minimize confusion and compliance burden,” said committee member Karina Drees of the CSF.

During the Senate hearing, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) quizzed the witnesses on scenarios that might fall in the jurisdiction of both agencies, such as an in-orbit servicing vehicle docking with a commercial space station for refueling. Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce, explained that servicing vehicle would be licensed by Commerce while the space station would be licensed by Transportation.

“There will be a robust interagency process,” he said, to address any jurisdictional issues, while maintaining strict timelines to review license applications. “Where there is a jump ball, there will be an interagency discussion.”

“For a single activity, only a single agency will have oversight of that responsibility,” added Kelvin Coleman, director of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST. “There is no situation where both the Department of Commerce and the Department of Transportation will have joint oversight responsibilities for a single activity.”

Two other agencies offered their support for the Space Council’s mission authorization proposal. “As NASA is increasingly a customer of commercial services, we really need greater clarity regarding who is responsible for authorizing and supervising commercial space activities,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. She said the proposal offered “a logical extension of the authorities of the Departments of Commerce and Transportation” to provide that authorization and supervision.

John Hill, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and missile defense, noted the proposal would also give the Commerce Department the authorities it needs to handle civil space traffic coordination, allowing the DOD to focus its resources on the “inherent military aspects” of space domain awareness. “We urge your support.”

One concern from industry about the White House mission authorization proposal is that giving even a subset of responsibilities to AST would further burden an office that is scrambling to keep up with a growing pace of commercial launches and reentries.

“Launch licensing is an intense process,” Coleman said, but argued that mission authorization would be different because of a far lower risk to the uninvolved public that drives the rigor of the launch licensing process. “We envision a very light-touch approach.”

In an interview after the hearing, Coleman said his office had not determined the level of staffing it would need to implement the mission authorization proposal from the White House, but noted it would likely follow existing procedures for payload and interagency policy reviews for launch licensing.

“I view authorization of these activities in sort of a different light than I would view licensing for a launch because the risks posed to the public is significantly different,” he said. “I believe a light-touch approach is appropriate and there should be a commensurate amount of resources associated with that kind of approach.”

At the hearing, some senators mentioned that they are working on a commercial space bill, yet to be introduced, that would offer their own version of mission authorization. They did not disclose details about their proposal, but industry officials said they expect it to differ from both the White House proposal and the House bill.

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...