WASHINGTON — The National Space Council is continuing work on a proposed framework for regulating commercial space activities that is being watched closely by both industry and Congress.

In a speech at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 9, Chirag Parikh, executive secretary of the council, said work was continuing on a proposal for what’s known as “mission authorization” for commercial space activities not currently regulated by other agencies. Such authorization and continuing supervision is required under Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty.

That includes, he said, reviewing feedback the council received from the private sector in a series of “listening sessions” late last year. “We have received a tremendous amount,” he said, citing the diversity of responses not just from companies in the industry but also insurers and investors. “It is definitely an issue that we are taking seriously.”

The feedback has revealed several broad issues, Parikh said. One, he said, is the need for a “clear, flexible, predictable” regulatory environment to ensure U.S. companies remain a leader globally.

A second issue is what he described as “the need for defined roles and responsibilities, as opposed to what some people call the nebulousness of authorization for some of these types of missions.” A final issue is a focus on space sustainability given the growing numbers of satellites and debris in orbit. “That needs to be considered as we move forward, as we think about the future applications of space.”

At the most recent National Space Council meeting in September, Vice President Kamala Harris, who serves as chair of the council, called for proposals for the authorization and supervision of “commercial novel space activities,” a month after a speech where she criticized outdated regulations. Those proposals are due in March, but it is not clear how soon after that the White House will release a mission authorization policy.

Those plans are of interest to both companies and Congress. “One of the things that I think we’re collectively worried about is regulatory uncertainty,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, chief government and external relations officer at Axiom Space, a commercial space station developer., during a panel later in the conference.

“The whole issue of how is it that all of that is going to be managed on orbit for commercial entities is an ongoing concern,” she said of mission authorization. “It’s one that we need to come to a resolution on in the United States.”

That extends to Congress, where both the House and Senate are considering legislation to address mission authorization. “I’m looking forward to what the administration puts forward as to which agency can accomplish this, which agency is going to have the right resources to make sure that we don’t end up slowing the entire process,” said Richard-Duane Chambers, a staff member on the Senate Commerce Committee, during a conference panel.

Tom Hammond, senior policy adviser on the House Science Committee, recalled a similar effort in response to a provision in the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, as well as a House bill that addressed the mission authorization issue. “We’ll look at it,” he said of the ongoing White House effort, “but it kind of is déjà vu if they come back with the exact same proposal that they did in 2016.”

Users’ Advisory Group to meet

Parikh’s speech coincided with an announcement in the Federal Register of the first meeting of the council’s reconstituted Users’ Advisory Group (UAG). The meeting is scheduled for Feb. 23 in Washington.

The meeting is the first since the White House announced a new roster for the UAG in December. The committee is chaired by retired Air Force general Les Lyles, who also chairs the NASA Advisory Council. He is one of seven previous members of the UAG retained by the White House for the new 30-member committee.

Parikh emphasized the “diversity” of the UAG, which in the past some had criticized for focusing too much on the aerospace industry. The new committee included users of space products and services, such as the agriculture industry and climate scientists, and representatives of large and small companies.

The UAG will have six subcommittees: exploration and discovery, economic development and the industrial base, climate and societal benefits, data and emerging technology, education and diversity, and national security.

The upcoming meeting, he said, will discuss work plans for those subcommittees. “The UAG is a very important function. It is a very important capability to provide us with input.”

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...