Karina Drees is the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
The commercial space industry is driving a new era of exploration, economic opportunity, and American leadership, introducing technologies that are revolutionizing access to the cosmos. The current regulatory regime governing space activities, divided among the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has guaranteed public safety while providing the necessary freedom for companies to innovate and iterate. This ability to test and learn has facilitated the rapid development of advanced capabilities needed to remain ahead of China and Russia in a renewed global space race. Cutting-edge activities—many of which remain conceptual or under development—like in-space manufacturing, space tugs, and more, which fall outside the statutory purview of existing regulators, are now on the horizon. Policymakers are considering establishing an additional supervisory regime to cover them.
The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) within the Department of Commerce is the most appropriate agency to manage this new framework. In building this out, OSC should be charged with establishing a light-touch, presumed-approval process with well-defined timelines that verifies operations are consistent with the national security and treaty obligations of the United States. The rationale for establishing this framework should be focused on ensuring U.S. adherence to its obligations under Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and in furtherance of our own national interests to maintain “continuous supervision” of licensed U.S. space activities. As an agency with deep technical expertise in developing and operating space systems, helping industry craft technical standards and best practices, regulating commercial space activities like remote sensing, and promoting commercial competitiveness for U.S. industry, the Department of Commerce is the best-positioned agency to implement an Article VI framework.
Indeed, OSC is already growing into a “one-stop shop” for commercial space activities within the government. With a legislative mandate to promote commerce and significant in-house technical expertise, the office is uniquely positioned to protect national interests while fostering innovation and U.S. commerce with respect to novel operations on orbit. Under this regime, the FAA will continue to do its critical regulatory work—protecting public safety during space launches and re-entries—and the FCC will continue to authorize use of radio-frequency spectrum under its existing statutory authorities.
This approach is consistent with long-standing congressional and White House intent. Both Space Policy Directive 2 (2018) and the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2019 elevated OSC above other federal agencies in the supervision of in-space operations, and, if implemented, would have provided OSC with new authorities to institute a new approach for space domain awareness to ensure Earth orbit remains safe and sustainable for all. On the other hand, over the past several decades, Congress has specifically limited FAA’s authority from regulating on-orbit activities to focus the agency’s attention and resources on its paramount goal of protecting the uninvolved public.
More practically, the U.S. is faced with an excellent problem—there is tremendous innovation and an ever-expanding set of American companies developing new launch systems, new satellites to provide Earth imaging, climate monitoring, and broadband communications, and other new technologies in space. This is driving billions of dollars of economic growth, creating many thousands of jobs, and bolstering American technology competitiveness — while contributing to national security and scientific discovery. At the same time, the exceptional growth of the U.S. space sector is placing heavy demands on the FAA and the FCC to timely complete licensing for activities already under their regulatory purview, such as launch and reentry licensing, or authorizations for next-generation satellite systems. Congress and the FCC are heavily focused on modernizing outdated satellite licensing processes to keep pace with U.S. innovation. At the FAA, current regulatory obligations are already overburdening a dedicated team, an issue we have repeatedly highlighted to Congress and successive Administrations.
It is critical to get this policy decision right. The Office of Space Commerce is the correct choice to implement an Article VI continuous supervision regulatory framework that is consistent with U.S. technology leadership, innovation in space, and other national priorities.