National Space Council meeting
A meeting of the National Space Council in December 2021. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — The White House is releasing a policy framework to accompany its proposal to provide oversight of novel commercial space activities.

The framework, to be announced at a Dec. 20 meeting of the National Space Council, is intended to accompany a separate legislative proposal for mission authorization it released Nov. 15. That proposal would split responsibility between the Department of Commerce and Department of Transportation for authorization and continuing supervision of those commercial space activities not regulated today.

The policy framework, which the White House describes in a fact sheet as a companion to that legislative proposal, “will enable the Executive Branch to better prepare for and shape the future space regulatory environment.”

A key element of the framework is the creation of a Private Sector Space Activities Interagency Steering Group co-chaired by the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation in consultation with the chair of the Federal Communications Commission. The group would include several Cabinet-level departments as well as NASA and other federal agencies “with expertise or equities pertaining to private sector novel space activities.”

That steering group will coordinate strategies for issues “pertaining to emerging private sector space capabilities that are nascent or in development,” the framework states. That includes working with the private sector on best practices, standards and information sharing protocols regarding the U.S. government’s core interests for novel space activities.

That information, in turn, would inform the guidance that the Commerce and Transportation Departments provide industry and incorporate into their regulatory processes. The document adds that other agencies should consider incorporating those best practices, standards and protocols into their own processes, and that the State Department should promote them internationally.

While a full-fledged mission authorization regime would require legislation, the policy framework calls upon Commerce and Transportation, along with other agencies, to use “their existing statutory authorities” to provide guidance to the private sector regarding those best practices and standards.

The framework also directs the Commerce and Transportation Departments to “minimize burdens on industry” as part of the oversight process. That would involve harmonizing their separate rulemaking processes and creating strict timelines for reviews of applications and “a presumption of an expedited review for approval.”

The policy framework states that the U.S. government’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP) are the guidelines that government agencies should use when regulating private space activities. It calls on several agencies to determine if the ODMSP, last updated in late 2019, should be updated every two years.

Another element of the policy is the creation of an “inventory of non-governmental space operations” by the Commerce Department, stating that the government would benefit from such a centralized database. It did not specify what information about private space operations should be included in that database.

The release of the policy framework comes as the White House faces opposition to its legislative proposal that would give Commerce and Transportation the statutory authority to oversee commercial space activities not currently licensed. The House Science Committee approved on a party-line vote Nov. 29 its own commercial space bill that would give mission authorization authority exclusively to the Commerce Department.

At a Dec. 13 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), chair of the subcommittee, said the White House’s proposed legislation had “numerous ambiguities, new undefined terms and broad grants of open-ended authority.” She did not elaborate on her concerns.

At that hearing, officials from several agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, within the Transportation Department, and the Office of Space Commerce within the Commerce Department, supported the White House mission authorization proposal. They told senators that there would be no cases where both departments would license a single activity and that there would be a “robust interagency process” to address any jurisdictional issues.

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...