U.S. Space Command chief makes case for civilian space traffic control

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Gen. James Dickinson said he supports the transfer of space traffic control to the Department of Commerce “where it can be better managed."

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has air traffic controllers to handle military airspace issues but the Federal Aviation Administration has overall responsibility for air safety. A similar arrangement is needed for the space domain, the commander of U.S. Space Command said Jan. 26.

Space is going to get congested and the nation needs the equivalent of the FAA for space traffic, Gen. James Dickinson said on a Mitchell Institute online event.

Space Command is one of 11 Defense Department combatant commands created to protect and defend the space domain. Crews assigned to Space Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, keep watch over more than 27,000 objects on orbit, estimate the probability of collisions and send warnings to satellite operators.

The Trump administration in 2018 designated the Department of Commerce to take over space traffic management duties from the Defense Department. Both agencies are working on a transition plan but so far it’s not clear exactly how space traffic management responsibilities will be reallocated. 

Dickinson said he supports the transfer of space traffic control to the Department of Commerce “where it can be better managed,” he said.  That would allow Space Command to focus on tracking space activities that affect national security.

He said Space Command and representatives from the Commerce Department have been working closely over the past two years to chart a path forward.

Dickinson said space traffic control has to be figured out sooner rather than later. “Our orbital regimes are becoming much more congested,” he said, adding that the military is not to blame for that. “Most of it is either space debris or commercial activity. And as we look to the future that’s only going to get more congested.”

The way traffic is handled in the air domain is a good model to follow, he said. “The FAA is responsible for air traffic control. However, the military still has a piece of that in terms of our air battle management responsibilities.”

When Commerce stands up its space traffic office it should have a similar role to what the FAA does today, “which is to make sure that we have a safe and responsible environment where commerce can take place,” Dickinson said.