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White House Wants DOT in Charge of Commercial Space "Mission Authorization"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-May-2016
Updated: 13-Mar-2017 11:45 PM

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is proposing to Congress that the Department of Transportation (DOT) be placed in charge of "mission authorization" for new types of private sector space activities in earth orbit and beyond.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has been floated as a likely candidate for this role for quite some time. The FAA is part of DOT. 

The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) signed into law last November required OSTP to submit a report to Congress assessing current and near-term commercial activities in space.  OSTP was also directed to recommend an approach for authorizing and continually supervising those activities as required by Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  The term "mission authorization" now is used to refer to authorizing and supervising commercial on-orbit activities such as satellite servicing (including refueling, repair, or adding end-of-life extension modules to existing spacecraft), building orbital habitats, or extracting resources from the Moon or asteroids.

OSTP submitted the report to Congress on April 4.  It includes an appendix with draft legislative language designating DOT as the federal agency to grant such authorizations, maintain a registry of those authorizations, and require holders of such authorizations to report on their activities periodically and if there is any material change to their operations.  The Secretary of Transportation is required to coordinate with the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the Director of National Intelligence, and other appropriate government departments and agencies.

The report does not specify the FAA or FAA/AST, but FAA/AST is the only office within DOT that currently has responsibility for issuing space-related licenses.  It facilitates and regulates commercial space launches and reentries.  FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield has spoken in many venues about expanding that office's regulatory responsibilities to include on-orbit and deep space commercial activities.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a strong advocate for that idea.

Nield and Bridenstine also have proposed that FAA/AST assume responsibility for non-military space situational awareness (SAA) duties.  DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JPSoC) tracks objects in orbit and issues "conjunction analyses" -- warnings that a collision may occur -- to other U.S. government agencies, other governments, and commercial entities.  Bridenstine argues that JSPoC needs to focus on its military mission of "fighting and winning wars," not on warning NASA or other space operators about potential collisions.  He sees a transition where a commercial Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center, overseen by FAA/AST, would fuse unclassified DOD data with data from international partners and commercial operators.   At a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) last week, Nield said that "senior Air Force and DOD leadership are right with us on this one," although "not everyone" in DOD shares the vision.  He suggested a quick, inexpensive pilot program to answer questions about how much it would cost and whether the data are accurate. for example.

The OSTP proposal takes a step in that direction. It would authorize the Secretary of Transportation, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, to examine planned and actual operational trajectories of space objects and advise satellite operators so as to prevent collisions.

Bridenstine introduced the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) on April 14 (H.R. 4945) that is very broad and goes further than the OSTP proposal with regard to SSA.  In the longer term, for example, he wants FAA/AST to become a Space Traffic Management (STM) entity with authority to compel operators to move their spacecraft to avoid collisions, though that is some years off.  He has stated that he does not expect his bill to pass en toto, but instead is a repository for provisions that will be inserted into other legislation.

The OSTP proposal would not affect activities that are already regulated by the FAA (commercial launch and reentry), the Federal Communications Commission (commercial communications satellites), or NOAA (commercial remote sensing satellites). It also stresses that the intent is not to establish a comprehensive regulatory framework -- that would be premature -- but to "establish a process no more burdensome that is necessary to enable the United States Government to authorize these pioneering space activities in conformity with its treaty obligations, and to safeguard our public interests, such as national security."

Commercial space advocates argue that although the private sector does not seek government regulation, investors want regulatory certainty before they put their money on the table.  Therefore clarification is needed on how the government plans to fulfill its obligations under Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty to help incentivize potential investors.  Hence the requirement that OSTP make these recommendations, which puts the ball back in Congress's court.

 


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