Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1 will be the first private attempt at in-orbit satellite servicing. Credit: Northrop Grumman

COLORADO SPRINGS — A new federal strategy seeks to coordinate activities among agencies and interaction with the private sector to advance work making and repairing spacecraft in space.

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a national strategy for what it calls in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) April 4. The document, released with little fanfare by the administration, establishes a set of goals for supporting the development of technologies and services ranging from refueling and repairing satellites to building new spacecraft in orbit.

“We see this inflection point where, at least for us, sustaining U.S. leadership is important as we continue to support companies’ capabilities and novel technologies to move us further into space,” said Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, assistant director for space policy at OSTP, at an April 7 panel discussion hosted by the Secure World Foundation and U.K. Space Agency during the 37th Space Symposium.

The strategy identifies six goals to support work on ISAM capabilities:

  1. Advancing ISAM research and development
  2. Prioritizing expansion of “scalable infrastructure”
  3. Accelerating the development of the ISAM industry
  4. Promoting international collaboration and cooperation on ISAM
  5. Emphasizing environmental sustainability
  6. Inspiring the future workforce

Each of those six goals has several aspects to it, outlining in general terms what federal government agencies should do to support ISAM. As part of the research and development goal, the strategy calls for coordination of R&D activities to meet identified needs for ISAM capabilities and to develop a “coherent ISAM ecosystem” of capabilities. As part of the industry acceleration goal, the government will define its needs for ISAM capabilities to provide a “sustained demand signal” for industry as well as establish an alliance of stakeholders across government, industry and academia to better coordinate needs with capabilities.

The strategy, as part of the international cooperation goal, also backs the development of standards and best practices for satellite servicing and proximity operations, as well as addressing any regulatory gaps. “As ISAM and related space activities evolve, the United States will update its domestic regulatory regime as necessary to improve clarity and certainty for the authorization and continuing supervision of non-governmental ISAM activities,” the document states.

The ISAM strategy won a positive reception from companies and industry groups involved in various aspects of the field. “I think this strategy is an excellent step forward by the Biden administration that will help focus U.S. governments efforts towards supporting commercial satellite servicing,” said Brian Weeden, executive director of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), an industry-led group that seeks to develop standards for satellite servicing and related activities.

He endorsed both the strategy’s support for standards as well as creating the government demand signal for ISAM services. “Like many other nascent commercial sectors, the government is a significant anchor client,” he said. “But in turn, we think commercial satellite servicing can provide significant benefits to civil and national security space programs.”

The ISAM strategy, coordinated by OSTP, involved a wide range of government agencies. They include NASA, the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, several other defense and intelligence agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, among others.

What the document does not describe, though, is how those agencies will implement the strategy. “We are looking forward to putting together an implementation plan,” said Uzo-Okoro. “We don’t want a strategy that’s released and forgotten about a week later. We want implementation actions that show we are serious about maturing these capabilities and moving the sector forward.” She didn’t offer a schedule for developing that plan, but said there would be opportunities for industry to provide its input to that plan.

“Like all national policies and strategies, the key always comes down to how well they are implemented,” said Weeden. “A great strategy on paper can fail to have impact if there is not as much, if not more, effort put into implementing it as writing it.”

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...