Spending bill highlights ongoing debate on Commerce Department’s role in space traffic management

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WASHINGTON — Language in a fiscal year 2020 spending bill suggests that Congress is unlikely to act soon on the future of the Office of Space Commerce or the Commerce Department’s proposed role in handing civil space traffic management.

A “minibus” spending bill released Dec. 16 that includes funding for the Commerce Department provides $2.3 million for the Office of Space Commerce and $1.8 million for the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office. That is the same as what CRSRA received in fiscal year 2019, and a $500,000 increase for the Office of Space Commerce.

The department, in its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, sought to merge the two offices and place them under the office of the Secretary of Commerce, with a total budget of $10 million. It had separately been backing legislation that would elevate the office to the Bureau of Space Commerce, led by a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary. The appropriations bill, though, rejected that proposal, keeping the two offices separate and in their current location within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report accompanying the minibus referenced language in the Senate’s version of the spending bill in October, which raised doubts about plans to give the Commerce Department responsibility for civil and commercial space traffic management. Space Policy Directive 3 in June 2018 directed Commerce to take over that work from the U.S. Air Force, a process expected to take several years.

The Senate report noted that the Senate Appropriations Committee “twice invited senior officials from the Department to offer public testimony before the Committee on the proposal to establish an Office of Space Commerce within the Office of the Secretary, among other topics.” However, the report added that both times those officials declined to testify, “and the public testimony that was offered did not quell the concerns of the Committee, specifically regarding the proposed transfer of space traffic management responsibilities from the Department of Defense.”

The Senate report directed the department to enter into a contract with the National Academy of Public Administration to conduct an independent one-year study of that proposed transfer of space traffic management responsibilities. That would include what department would be best to handle that work, and regulatory or other authorities needed to perform the work, required funding and other considerations.

The report for the minibus accepted that language, but directed the study be completed in six months rather the one year. It also “encourages” that the $1.1 million cost be split between NOAA and the Commerce Department’s management account, noting that the $500,000 increase for the Office of Space Commerce was intended to support that study.

NOAA’s own satellite programs fared well in the final spending bill. The bill provides $304 million for the GOES-R geostationary weather satellite program and $755 million for the Polar Weather Satellites program, which combined the existing JPSS program with the Polar Follow-On initiative for future polar-orbiting weather satellites. The Space Weather Follow-On program received $64 million. Commercial weather data initiatives were included in a new program called Systems/Services, Architecture and Engineering, with $3 million for additional pilot programs and $5 million to begin commercial purchase of GPS radio occultation data for weather forecasting applications.

A separate minibus appropriations bill that includes funding for transportation provided $26.04 million for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The office received $24.949 million in fiscal year 2019 and the administration sought $25.598 million for it in 2020.

A couple of space-related research programs elsewhere in the FAA, though, did not fare as well in the budget. The FAA sought $33 million for a commercial space integration project to improve integration of launches and reentries into the national airspace system, but received $23 million in the final bill. A separate research program for commercial space transportation safety requested nearly $6 million but received $2.5 million in the minibus.