Updated 10:15 a.m. Eastern to clarify scope of the in-space transportation license.
BREMEN, Germany — The White House has unveiled its long-awaited proposal for regulating novel commercial space activities, splitting those responsibilities between the Commerce and Transportation Departments.
The National Space Council released a draft bill or “legislative proposal” Nov. 15 that would give the two departments the authority to authorize and oversee activities not currently licensed by other agencies, like launches, satellite communications and commercial remote sensing. Such oversight is required to comply with the “authorization and continuing supervision” provision of Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty.
Rather than giving that authority to a single agency, the proposal would divide those responsibilities between two departments, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Commerce (DOC).
DOT, through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, would handle oversight of human spaceflight activities beyond its current role in launch and reentry. It would license all other human spaceflight activities, including commercial space stations and missions to the moon and other celestial bodies. That office would also regulate transportation of items through space or to the lunar surface through a new “in-space transportation license.”
DOC’s Office of Space Commerce, which handles commercial remote sensing regulations, would expand its oversight to other uncrewed spacecraft not regulated by DOT. That would include the emerging field of in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) and debris removal.
That office is also developing a civil space traffic coordination system, taking over that work from the Defense Department. The proposed bill would formally authorize that work and direct the two departments to take space sustainability into account as part of the licensing process. The bill also requires the departments to coordinate with other agencies with expertise, like NASA’s experience with human spaceflight, as part of their new licensing processes.
In a statement, officials with both departments expressed their support for the proposal. “U.S. industry leads the world in bringing the benefits of space to Earth. This legislation ensures that our government will build a regulatory environment that supports commercial expansion to benefit all Americans,” said Don Graves, deputy secretary of commerce.
“The FAA remains committed to ensuring novel in-space activities occur safely and efficiently. We look forward to supporting an all-of-government approach working with industry,” said Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of transportation.
The space industry in the U.S. has been waiting years for a potential resolution to the regulatory uncertainty new space applications face. That uncertainty regarding which agency, or agencies, could formally approve their missions threatened to delay progress on them, companies argued.
Last September, Vice President Kamala Harris announced at a National Space Council meeting that she wanted agencies to submit proposals for mission authorization—the term often used by the industry to describe that oversight responsibility—within six months. However, there had been little public progress on the deliberations among government agencies since then.
The need for mission authorization was emphasized in an Oct. 25 speech by NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, who noted it was important to the commercial elements of the Artemis lunar exploration effort. “Our industry needs a clear, timely and consistent path to success and safety,” she said, citing “the risk to all space activities of not having some form of coordinated oversight that has clarity for both NASA and the industry.”
Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Brian Babin (R-Texas), the chairs of the House Science Committee and its space subcommittee respectively, introduced a bill called the Commercial Space Act of 2023 Nov. 2 that addresses mission authorization. That bill would create a “certification” process for spacecraft not licensed by other agencies today, handled by DOC’s Office of Space Commerce. The House Science Committee is scheduled to mark up the bill Nov. 15.