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Nield, Bridenstine Make Case for Expanding FAA/AST's Authorities

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Feb-2016
Updated: 03-Feb-2016 07:10 AM

The head of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and a key Member of Congress are making the case for expanding AST's regulatory responsibilities to include much more than commercial launches and reentries. Both spoke at the first day of AST's annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, which continues today (Wednesday).  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is webcasting the event.

Over the past year, interest has grown in both the government and commercial space sectors over what agency should have the responsibility for ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that requires governments to "authorize and continually supervise" the activities of their non-government entities, such as companies.  U.S. companies have been operating in space since the 1960s, primarily commercial communications and remote sensing satellites, but the potential expansion of commercial activities to other realms, such as asteroid mining or habitats on the lunar surface, is raising the visibility of the issue of who in the U.S. government is responsible for that task.

The recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to recommend approaches for oversight of commercial activities in space.  The law was enacted on November 25, 2015 and the report is due 120 days thereafter.

FAA Associate Administrator for AST George Nield wants his office to be given that responsibility.  He said that his office could issue a "mission license" for in-space operations not already regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or NOAA.   FCC licenses the use of the radio spectrum by commercial companies.  NOAA licenses commercial remote sensing satellites.

Another growing issue is who should be responsible for determining if satellites are going to collide with each other or with space debris and warn affected parties.  This is often referred to as Space Traffic Management.  Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) performs the calculations -- "conjunction analyses" -- and alerts appropriate parties, but some argue that JSPoC should focus on DOD's requirement to protect U.S. national security satellites, not those of the civil or commercial sectors.

Nield said the FAA should take on that responsibility as well;  "We think it makes sense for the FAA to take on this role, and we believe that there is consensus in the interagency community that we are the right ones to do it, but we need to make the decision soon and get on with it."  He also advocated for the FAA to process safety-related space situational awareness data and release it "to any entity, consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations."  The FAA and DOD are in agreement that this is feasible, he added, though his office needs additional resources to do it.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, agrees.   Speaking at the conference yesterday, he stressed that DOD must focus on the threats posed to national security satellites rather than spending its time determining whether the International Space Station (ISS) is "going to hit a screw."   DOD must be relieved of the "burden" of performing conjunction analyses for the civil and commercial sectors, he said, and the FAA is the proper agency to take on that task.   He added that DOD does not want to relinquish JSPoC, but instead to use it for what it is intended -- national security.  He also agreed that FAA/AST needs more money if it takes on additional tasks.   He noted that he tried to add $1 million for FAA/AST in the House-passed version of the FY2016 Transportation-HUD appropriations act, but only $250,000 was approved.

Bridenstine also raised the issue of who should be responsible for ensuring compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, calling it a "challenge we have to own up to and ultimately solve.  It won't be easy and won't happen overnight."  He stopped short of recommending FAA/AST as the answer, but said government regulation of commercial space activities overall must be consistent and simplified.

The conference continues today, with Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, scheduled to speak at 8:30 am ET, followed by NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation indicated that it will webcast today's sessions as well.


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