Congress Keeps NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce in NESDIS

Congress Keeps NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce in NESDIS

The final FY2022 appropriations bill keeps NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce under the part of NOAA that manages weather satellite programs instead of elevating it to a higher level. Charged in 2018 with taking over responsibility from DOD for interfacing with civil and commercial space operators on Space Situational Awareness, the appropriations bill does at least increase its funding, but supporters argue it needs more visibility and authority to work effectively.

The FY2022 omnibus appropriations bill, H.R. 2471, passed the Senate late this evening, a day after the House. It funds all departments and agencies including the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is a part.

The bill provides $16 million for NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC), $6 million more than the request, and keeps it under the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), which operates the nation’s civil weather satellite systems.

Since Space Policy Directive-3 was issued in 2018, OSC has been tasked to become the interface between the government and civil and commercial space operators for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management (STM) — knowing what and where objects are in Earth orbit and warning satellite operators of potential collisions.

DOD has been performing that role for decades, but the explosive growth in the number of objects orbiting Earth — active satellites, dead satellites, and a great deal of space debris — is sapping its resources.

Gen. James Dickinson, Commander of U.S. Space Command, told a Senate committee this week that just since USSPACECOM was reestablished in 2019, the number of space objects it tracks has grown from 25,000 to 44,000. DOD will continue tracking everything as it does now, but wants a civilian agency to take over interfacing with non-military users.

Then-Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross embraced SPD-3 and assigned the task to OSC. He actually envisioned OSC as the nucleus of a new Bureau of Space Commerce reporting to him that would not only implement SPD-3, but grow into a “one-stop shop” for oversight and regulation of new U.S. commercial space activities. That would be quite a turnaround for OSC. Created in 1988 as part of the Secretary’s office, over the decades it moved lower in the bureaucracy to NOAA and under NESDIS with limited responsibilities.

With the SPD-3 task in hand, OSC now is focused on creating an Open Access Data Repository (OADR) that merges DOD’s data with that from commercial companies like LeoLabs, COMSPOC, and ExoAnalytic Solutions.  These companies have their own sensors, some in parts of the world DOD doesn’t cover very well, and analytic capabilities. The idea is that Commerce would purchase data from the companies and integrate it into the OADR.

The effort appears to have slowed since the change in administrations, however. Kevin O’Connell headed OSC from 2018 until the end of the Trump Administration when he and other political appointees had to leave. More than a year later, no one has been appointed to replace him.

Steve Volz, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services and Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction. Credit: NOAA

NOAA is making some progress. The head of NESDIS, Steve Volz, previewed a prototype of the OADR last month and is solicting input from the private sector on what commercial sensors and services will be available this decade. But a lot of the momentum seems to have faded.

Congress still has not warmed up Ross’s idea of a Bureau. In fact it took until last year for it even to raise OSC’s funding level to take on the SPD-3 task after a study from the National Academy of Public Administration endorsed the Department as the right place for the job.

Congress increased funding from $4.1 million to $10 million for FY2021 and directed NOAA to initiate a STM pilot program. But it kept OSC within NESDIS despite arguments that it needed to be elevated to a higher level to effectively interact with other government agencies.

This year, hopes were high that OSC might at least get moved out of NESDIS and report directly to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, who is also the NOAA Administrator. In its version of the FY2022 Commerce-Justice-Science bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee said it was “extremely disappointed” with NOAA’s execution of the STM pilot program. Not only did it recommend elevating the office to the Under Secretary’s level, but doubling the budget from $10 million to $20 million.

But it is not to be. The final appropriations bill keeps OSC in NESDIS, though it does raise the budget to $16 million. NOAA is required to submit a five-year strategic plan “for OSC to achieve full operational capability, including out-year mission deliverables and expected budgetary requirements” within 90 days.

The funding increase is important, but the question remains as to whether elevating OSC to a higher level would galvanize the OADR effort.

Audrey Schaffer, Space Policy Director at the White House National Security Council, views funding, not organization, as the pacing factor. Speaking at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies Schriever Spacepower Forum webinar yesterday she said “there are a lot of different arguments you could make” as to where OSC could be placed, but “the resource picture” is the bigger issue.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation, who once was one of the Air Force officers tracking space objects, sees it differently. He told by email this evening that the key is organizational, not only for the OADR, but those other roles Ross envisioned.

In my opinion, organizational placement absolutely matters and OSC needs to be elevated under the Secretary or Deputy Secretary. The vision for what the Office of Space Commerce is supposed to take on is bigger than just the OADR – it includes being the advocate for commercial industry within the interagency process, better understanding the speed and direction of industry, and modernizing the oversight process for new commercial space activities. I think implementing all that will be much more difficult to do while buried down inside NESDIS. — Brian Weeden, Secure World Foundation

Volz himself argued at a media briefing last month that higher visibility and authority within the Department is needed. He said details of NOAA’s plans will be included in the FY2023 budget request.

For at least another year, though, OSC will remain where it is.

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