Why the Office of Space Commerce should oversee novel commercial space activities

Karina Drees is 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 for space activities, split between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has ensured public safety while giving companies the necessary freedom to innovate and innovate iterate if necessary. This ability to test and learn has facilitated the rapid development of advanced capabilities needed to stay ahead of China and Russia in a renewed global space race. Cutting-edge activities – many of which are still conceptual or in development – such as in-space manufacturing, space tugs and more that fall outside the legal purview of existing regulators are now on the horizon. Policymakers are considering setting up an additional oversight regime to cover them.

DalBello at the FAA conference
Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce, speaks at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference on February 8th. Source: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) within the Department of Commerce is the most appropriate agency to administer this new framework. To expand on this, the OSC should be tasked with establishing a straightforward presumptive approval process with clearly defined timelines that verifies that operations are consistent with national security and United States treaty obligations. The rationale for establishing this framework should be geared towards ensuring that the US meets its obligations under Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and to further our own national interest in maintaining “continuous surveillance” of licensed US space activities. As an agency with extensive technical expertise in developing and operating space systems, helping industry develop technical standards and best practices, regulating commercial space activities such as remote sensing, and promoting commercial competitiveness of US industry, the Department of Commerce is the best positioned authority Implementation of an Article VI framework.

In fact, OSC is already becoming a “one-stop shop” for commercial space activities within government. With a statutory mandate to promote commerce and significant in-house technical expertise, the office is uniquely positioned to protect national interests while promoting innovation and U.S. commerce related to novel in-orbit operations. Under this regime, the FAA will continue to do its important regulatory work – protecting public safety in space launches and reentry – and the FCC will continue to authorize the use of radio spectrum within its existing legal powers.

This approach is consistent with the longstanding intent of Congress and the White House. Both Space Policy Directive 2 (2018) and the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2019 placed OSC above other federal agencies in overseeing operations in space and, if implemented, would have given OSC new powers to institute a new approach for space awareness to ensure Earth orbit remains safe and sustainable for all. On the other hand, for the last several decades, Congress has specifically limited the FAA’s powers to regulate in-orbit activities in order to focus the agency’s attention and resources on its primary goal of protecting the uninvolved public.

In practical terms, the US faces a major problem – there is tremendous innovation and an ever-growing number 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 fuels billions of dollars in economic growth, creates tens of thousands of jobs, and strengthens America’s technological competitiveness—while contributing to national security and scientific discovery. At the same time, the extraordinary growth of the US space sector places great demands on the FAA and FCC to timely complete licensing for activities already within their regulatory purview, such as: B. Launch and re-entry licenses or permits for next-generation satellite systems. Congress and the FCC are heavily focused on modernizing outdated satellite licensing practices to keep up with US innovation. At the FAA, current regulatory obligations already overwhelm a dedicated team, an issue we have repeatedly highlighted to Congress and subsequent administrations.

It is crucial to get this political decision right. The Office of Space Commerce is the right choice to implement a regulatory framework for continuous Article VI surveillance consistent with US technology leadership, space innovation, and other national priorities.

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