Harris at Space Council meeting
Vice President Kamala Harris said at the Sept. 9 National Space Council meeting that agencies should submit proposals for regulating "novel" commercial space activities in the next six months. Credit: NASA

PARIS — The White House will ask federal agencies for their proposals for how to authorize and supervise emerging commercial space capabilities that don’t fit into current regulatory regimes.

Near the end of the meeting of the National Space Council at NASA’s Johnson Space Center Sept. 9, Vice President Kamala Harris called on agencies who are members of the council to submit their proposals for the authorization and supervision of “commercial novel space activities” in the next six months. Harris had hinted at such a move in an Aug. 12 speech where she criticized “simply outdated” commercial space regulations.

The proposals are meant to address a longstanding concern that the current U.S. commercial space regulatory system is ill-suited for new space markets that don’t fit into frameworks established for mature markets like communications, remote sensing and launch. Industry officials have warned that it can be difficult to know what agency or agencies are responsible for emerging applications like commercial space stations, satellite servicing or in-space manufacturing.

Some degree of oversight is required for the United States to comply with its obligations under Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty to provide authorization and continuing supervision of space activities by companies. There has been no consensus, though, about who should oversee those activities.

“What are the rules for those types of applications?” said Chirag Parikh, executive secretary of the National Space Council, in a speech Sept. 12 at World Satellite Business Week here, recapping the council’s latest meeting. “That’s one of the things that we’re taking very seriously.”

There has been no shortage of proposals over the years to assign that responsibility to one agency or another, such as the Office of Space Commerce within the Commerce Department or the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, part of the Transportation Department.

Representative of both departments discussed their interest in the issue at the council meeting. “We certainly recognize novel space activities require regulatory clarity and flexibility and predictability,” said Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of transportation. She cited efforts by the FAA to streamline launch and reentry regulations, which she called a “gamechanger” for improving the licensing process.

“We believe that it’s absolutely critical for the U.S. to ensure that all commercial space missions are properly authorized and supervised,” said Don Graves, deputy secretary of commerce. He argued his department’s work on commercial remote sensing regulations and, more recently, civil space traffic management, gave it “unique insights” into how regulations fit emerging space activities.

“We need a regulatory structure that can change in response to the rapid introduction of new technologies,” he said. He endorsed the concept of a “space portal” that would direct space companies to the right agencies, something similar to the “one-stop shop” proposed for the Office of Space Commerce in recent years.

What is unclear, though, is how any proposals submitted in the next six months would differ from earlier concepts that have been studied for years, and what the National Space Council will do once it receives the proposals. Harris stated one issue that must be included in the proposals is space safety. “What I’d ask is that your proposals include how we will ensure space operations abide by space safety norms and protocols,” she said.

“It’s one of the things we’re taking very seriously,” Parikh said of the process, calling it a “whole of government” effort that will also involve industry input. “You can’t have all these different stovepipes of rules and regulations. You have to have something that is innovative, that’s flexible, that keeps up with technology.”

Companies are pushing the White House to move quickly on the issue. “We need to proceed with alacrity to address the issue of how we provide ‘continuing supervision’ by the government of commercial space activities as required by the Outer Space Treaty,” said Mike Gold, executive vice president for commercial space and external affairs at Redwire Space. “It is vital that a lead federal agency be identified as soon as possible and I applaud the vice president for her continued focus on this nuanced topic.”

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...