Bridenstine Lays Out Multipronged Legislative Agenda for Commercial Space

Bridenstine Lays Out Multipronged Legislative Agenda for Commercial Space

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) is planning a multipronged approach to getting government space agencies to adopt commercial solutions.  He will introduce a comprehensive bill — the American Space Renaissance Act — later this year, but does not expect it to pass en toto.  Instead, he sees it as a repository of “plug and play” provisions that will be inserted into other pieces of legislation, especially this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Speaking at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) breakfast meeting on Friday, Bridenstine laid out his plans “to promote policies that will permanently make America the predominant spacefaring nation.”   A draft of the American Space Renaissance Act will be released at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium in April and Bridenstine is seeking feedback from interested parties. 

He listed a number themes that will be included in the draft legislation:  fostering, encouraging and incentivizing industry to innovate and thrive in the United States; expanding launch options and producing more satellites in the United States; having a robust space travel infrastructure; being the home of world-changing plans like point-to-point suborbital flight, lunar habitats and asteroid mining; and getting the government to purchase services instead of owning satellites.

The bill is intended to serve as a “conversation piece as well as a repository for the best ideas that we can plug and play into different pieces of legislation,” he said.

Bridenstine serves on both the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, where he chairs the Subcommittee on Environment, and the House Armed Services Committee, where he is a member of the subcommittee on Strategic Forces.  That provides him a broader view of space issues than most Members of Congress.   The second-term Congressman said his constituents (in the Tulsa area) have little interest in space programs because they do not recognize the role that space plays in their everyday lives, but he is convinced of its importance.

He is particularly passionate about the nation’s weather satellites.  His goal is for forecasts to become so accurate that there will be zero deaths from tornadoes, a frequent occurrence in Oklahoma.  He has been a strong critic of NOAA’s management of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series because of their high cost and schedule delays, but more broadly worries that NOAA builds “Battlestar Gallaticas” that are vulnerable to a range of threats — from launch failures, to system failures, to attacks from enemies — and sees commercial weather companies and their constellations of small satellites as part of the solution. 

The FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act directed NOAA to initiate a commercial weather data pilot program to purchase, evaluate and calibrate commercial weather data and assess its viability for inclusion in NOAA’s numerical weather models.  The idea originated in the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) that passed the House last year, which Bridenstine co-sponsored.  It would authorize $9 million for this effort.  The Senate has not acted on that bill yet, but the weather data pilot program was included in NOAA’s portion of the FY2016 appropriations bill, with $3 million allocated.  A Bridenstine aide said on Friday that a report from NOAA on its implementation of the pilot program was due on February 16, but has not yet been received.  NOAA is requesting $5 million for FY2017.

Bridenstine said he plans to try and include a similar provision for DOD in this year’s NDAA.   DOD is still struggling to shape its weather satellite strategy following the 2010 cancellation of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).   It has had a few false starts and Bridenstine clearly sees commercial data as part of the solution.

He also will try to include language in the NDAA to begin a transition of responsibility for providing space situational awareness (SSA) data and conjunction analyses (to warn of potential collisions) to commercial entities and foreign governments.   Today, DOD’s Joint Space Operations Center (JPSoC) provides SSA data to everyone, but Bridenstine reiterated Friday what he has said in the past that it is a distraction for JSPoC, which should be focused on its DOD mission of “fighting and winning wars.”   He wants to create a commercialized Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center that fuses unclassified DOD data with data from international partners and commercial operators.  The Center would be subject to oversight by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). 

Bridenstine insisted that he is a conservative Republican who typically does not favor government regulation, but it is necessary in some cases. Commercial space is one of them because “the lack of appropriate regulation is regulation itself.”  His goal is to find a “sweet spot” to “maximize regulatory certainty and minimize regulatory interference – a de minumus approach.”

As for his Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center that he wants included in the NDAA, he stressed that he is not proposing any new regulatory authority.  “Zero. My objective is to gradually build the capacity of a civilian agency” to do SSA.  Eventually, he thinks a government agency — specifically FAA/AST — should be in charge of Space Traffic Management, but he is not proposing that right now.  He also restated his intent for FAA/AST to be designated as the government agency in charge of implementing a requirement in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that governments authorize and continually supervise the actions of their non-governmental entities, like companies.  FAA/AST regulates commercial launches and reentries, NOAA regulates commercial remote sensing satellites, and the Federal Communications Commission regulates commercial communications satellites, but no agency has been appointed to regulate activities such as asteroid mining or commercial activities on the lunar surface.  He thinks FAA/AST should expand its role to do so.

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