GAO Requested to Study Restoring FAA Commercial Space Office to Secretary's Level

GAO Requested to Study Restoring FAA Commercial Space Office to Secretary's Level

Three members of the House have sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a study on the feasibility of elevating the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) to the Secretary of Transportation’s office. Advocates believe that would facilitate getting needed financial and personnel resources to allow the office to fulfill its duties as the commercial space launch business expands.

Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Washington), Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) and Ami Bera (D-California) sent a letter to GAO on May 8 asking that it examine the following questions:

  • the feasibility of moving AST back into the Secretary’s office and what would be required to accomplish it;
  • the advantages and disadvantages of doing so in terms of AST’s ability to coordinate and communicate with the FAA on airspace issues; and
  • the key practices identified by GAO in other reorganizations that would be instructive for a successful transition of this nature.

President Ronald Reagan assigned responsibility for regulating the nascent U.S. commercial space launch industry to the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 1983, an action that was codified in law by the 1984 Commercial Space Transportation Act.  The Office of Commercial Space Transportation was established as part of the Secretary of Transportation’s office at that time. In 1995, however, it was reassigned to the FAA, one of the eight administrations within DOT.

Similarly, the Office of Space Commerce in the Department of Commerce (DOC) was reassigned from the Secretary of Commerce’s office to NOAA.  Bridenstine is one of three members of Congress circulating a discussion draft of a bill that would, among other things. restore that office to its previous status in DOC.  (No bill has been introduced yet.  What is being circulated is a draft bill for discussion purposes to obtain input from stakeholders.)

Congress has passed a number of laws over the past three decades that amend the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act or govern other commercial space activities such as commercial satellite remote sensing, most recently the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Congressional action is continuing as the commercial space sector grows and many in Congress want to establish a regime with minimal regulation that provides regulatory certainty for potential investors.

FAA/AST is funded as part of the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.  Kilmer is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.  He and Bridenstine worked together to win a requested increase for FAA/AST’s budget in FY2017 from $17.8 million to $19.8 million.  Earlier this year, Bridenstine testified to the T-HUD subcommittee to argue for an increase to $23 million in FY2018.  (At the hearing he also won an endorsement to become the next NASA Administrator from Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the subcommittee that funds NASA).

Bera is the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

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