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Time for a compromise on space traffic management

President Donald Trump shows the signed Space Policy Directive 3 document at a meeting of the National Space Council last June. Progress on implementing that policy has been slowed by disputes regarding which agency should be in the lead for civil space traffic management. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Over the last several years, space traffic management (STM) has gone from an obscure topic debated mainly by academics and policy wonks (like myself!) to one at the forefront of US national policy. This is thanks largely to the efforts of Scott Pace and his staff at the National Space Council, who led the interagency efforts that resulted in the first-ever national policy on STM signed by President Trump last June. However, implementation of that policy has stalled, mainly due to disagreements between Congress and the White House over which agency should be in charge. I believe that these disagreements can be overcome and there is enough common ground on which to build a compromise that will yield real benefits for national security, the commercial space industry, and ultimately the American people.

Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3), signed by President Trump on June 18, 2018, lays out an excellent set of policy goals and directives for STM and provides a solid roadmap of how to put in place the roles, authorities, and responsibilities to get there. This should be no surprise, as it leveraged the more than six years of studies, preparatory work done by many departments and agencies, and interagency discussions on this topic conducted during the Obama Administration since 2011. The biggest policy change directed by SPD-3 is giving a civil government agency the authority to provide space situational awareness (SSA) data and services to support safety of space activities, and refocus the Department of Defense on developing national security SSA capabilities and protecting against threats. The policy also mandates better use of private sector SSA capabilities and modernizing government oversight mechanisms to enable commercial innovation while protecting the long-term sustainability of space.

The main difference between the Obama and Trump Administrations, and the current sticking point, is who that lead civil agency should be. The Obama Administration, and congressional Democrats in general, felt that the mission was best suited for the Department of Transportation (DOT), and specifically the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), as they have significant experience with promoting safety and efficiency in the aviation world while also enabling a strong commercial market to develop. The Trump Administration, and Republicans leading the House space subcommittee in the previous Congress, felt that the Department of Commerce (DOC) was a better fit to assuage concerns that too much regulation would stifle commercial innovation. This issue is not strictly partisan though: lawmakers of both parties on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee are also concerned about expanding the authorities and size of the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) when there is already significant capacity and a more proven track record of success within FAA/AST.

Thus, in June 2018 the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology introduced the American Space SAFE Management Act that would elevate OSC to create the Bureau of Space Commerce and give it broader authorities over SSA and licensing of commercial space, while in July the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation introduced the Space Frontier Act that would reinforce the role of FAA/AST in oversight of new and emerging space activities via a concept called mission authorization. The Senate was silent on SSA authorities, reportedly out of a desire to not go against White House policy, but there are indications they favored that mission going to FAA/AST as well.

As a result of this impasse, there has not been much progress to fully implement SPD-3. Over the final two years of the Obama Administration, FAA/AST laid significant groundwork for taking on civil SSA and STM, primarily focusing on minimizing the impact of space traffic on air traffic, and was weeks away from launching a Congressionally-appropriated pilot civil SSA program before being forced to stop work when the Trump Administration came into office. Since his appointment last year, the new director of OSC, Kevin O’Connell, has done an outstanding job marshalling what resources DOC has to better promote commercial space and lay the groundwork for future SSA and STM services. But his efforts have been hampered by a lack of authority and funding, due to the inability of the 115th Congress to pass legislation on this issue. Another two years of delay and the uncertainty of another presidential election and Congress should be avoided if at all possible.

The good news is that there is room for a compromise that incorporates the best parts of both sides’ ideas. The Republican House proposal to create a Bureau of Space Commerce that is the lead agency for promoting commercial space and being its advocate within the government is an excellent idea, and O’Connell is the right person to lead it. But given the political situation in Congress, it makes sense to give responsibility for providing civil SSA data and services, creating safety standards for on-orbit space activities, and managing the air-space traffic interface to the DOT. Doing so would also make it easier to address the concerns over how the rapid increase in commercial space launches may cause disruptions to commercial aviation. These responsibilities should be given to a new Bureau of Space Transportation within DOT, created by elevating AST out of the FAA. Creating a separate bureau allows for a stronger focus on space, better resourcing, and more independence from the FAA and their overwhelming focus on aviation.

The harder question is what to do with the responsibility for mission authorization and licensing of new and innovative commercial space activities. Ideally, that authority should be married with the civil SSA mission as the two complement each other and form the foundation of STM, which would mean giving mission authorization to DOT. However, giving both civil SSA and mission authorization to DOT would represent a significant reversal of the policy direction in SPD-3 and may be politically unacceptable for the White House. If that’s the case, then the next best alternative would be to give mission authorization to DOC, along with promotion and advocacy of commercial space, while civil SSA and safety standards goes to DOT.

While this compromise with split authorities between the Bureau of Space Commerce and Bureau of Space Transportation doesn’t reach the ideal of having everything consolidated into one agency, that was never in the cards to begin with. DOC and DOT, along with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), were already going to retain separate licensing authorities, even under the original SPD-3 policy, because of the way the legal authorities in the United States are currently set up. Under the compromise outlined here, DOC and DOT will still need to work together, along with other agencies like the Department of Defense and the State Department, to implement the rest of the excellent ideas put forth in SPD-3. There’s even a good role for NASA to play in fostering science and technology innovation for civil SSA and STM. Regardless of who’s in charge of what, this will still need to be a whole-of-government effort.

The risks of letting the status quo go on for another two years are just too high. The looming rapid increase in space launches and satellites on orbit could result in long-term harm to the space environment, or even loss of life from a tragic accident, if steps are not taken now to put in place the tracking capabilities and oversight authorities to enable sustainable development. That, in turn, could stifle the booming commercial space sector, which would impact US economic growth and the development of new and innovative space applications that could improve life right here on Earth. From a US perspective, it might also mean commercial innovation in space heads to other countries that are already taking steps to put in place modernizing oversight frameworks. Now is the time for the White House and Congress to reach a bipartisan compromise on STM.


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