House Appropriators Urge FAA to Facilitate Private Lunar Development – UPDATE

House Appropriators Urge FAA to Facilitate Private Lunar Development – UPDATE

The House Appropriations Committee encourages the FAA to enhance its processes to provide “security and predictability” to companies planning lunar development.  It also urges the FAA to define “non-interference” in the context of such private sector activities.  At the same time, it denies half of the requested increase for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) to hire more staff. [UPDATE:  The committee approved the bill on May 24 after adopting an amendment that raised funding for FAA/AST to the requested level of $19.8 million.]

The committee released its draft report on the FY2017 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill today, which includes funding for FAA/AST, in preparation for full committee mark up tomorrow morning.  The T-HUD subcommittee approved its draft bill last week. [UPDATE: As noted, the committee approved the bill on May 24.]

The President requested an approximately $2 million increase for FAA/AST, from $17.800 million in FY2016 to $19.826 million in FY2017. The committee proposes funding the office at $18.826 million, a $1 million reduction from the request and $1.026 million more than current funding.  It notes that the request is for a 20 percent increase in personnel and asserts the amount of funding it recommends should be enough to allow the office “to judiciously hire critical operational staff.”   Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and 17 other lawmakers wrote a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the T-HUD subcommittee in March urging them to approve the full request, but apparently it was not sufficiently persuasive to win approval of the entire increase. [UPDATE: as noted, an amendment was adopted during committee markup that raises the FAA/AST funding level to the requested $19.8 million.]

Mike Gold, Vice President of Washington Operations for SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral), who chairs FAA/AST’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), said in an interview today that he is happy to see the committee agree to a $1 million increase and even a small amount of money can make a significant difference.  He added that he looks forward to working with Congress to see if that figure can be improved as the bill proceeds through the appropriations process.  He considers the increase over FY2016 an indication of forward progress, even if it is not as much as the request.  [UPDATE: as noted, an amendment was adopted during committee markup that raises the FAA/AST funding level to the requested $19.8 million.]

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the entire $19.8 million.

The House Appropriations Committee also “commends” and “encourages” the FAA regarding facilitating private sector companies that plan lunar development.  This year’s language builds on prior year committee reports.

Under a heading “Space Launch System,” the committee first commends FAA/AST’s efforts to promote private sector exploration and development of the Moon “which may require” use of heavy-lift rockets like NASA’s SLS.  Next, it encourages FAA/AST to define “non-interference” and “to enhance its payload review process to provide companies planning private sector lunar development with the security and predictability necessary to support substantial investments.”

In last year’s report on the T-HUD bill (H. Rept. 114-129), the
committee applauded FAA/AST’s efforts to encourage private lunar
development by leveraging its existing launch licensing authorities and
“ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a
non-interference basis.”   This year it is more explicit, encouraging
FAA/AST to define the term “non-interference.”

The issue arises from Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty, which says, among other things, that any country that has signed and ratified the treaty (“State party”) should undertake “appropriate international consultations” if it or any of its nationals (e.g. companies) might engage in any activity that “would cause potentially harmful interference” with activities by other States parties before proceeding.  Furthermore, if another State Party thinks someone else may cause potentially harmful interference, it may request consultations.  Last year’s Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) directs the President to promote the right of U.S. citizens to engage in commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference in accordance with U.S. international obligations (like the Treaty).  Neither the Treaty nor the law defines interference or its inverse, non-interference, however. 

The Treaty also requires in Article VI that governments authorize and continually supervise the activities of non-government entities, like companies.  The White House has proposed that the Department of Transportation (of which FAA is part) be assigned that responsibility for activities not already regulated by another U.S. agency.

Gold noted that this is actually the third year the House Appropriations Committee has expressed support for FAA/AST’s actions in facilitating private sector activities on the Moon.  Several companies are planning lunar exploration in the near-term, he explained, including participants in the Google Lunar X-Prize contest and Bigelow Aerospace, for which Gold worked for many years.   Bigelow sought FAA/AST guidance on these issues in 2014 as part of a payload review request.  George Nield, FAA’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation and head of FAA/AST replied in a December 22, 2014 letter that his office intended to work to ensure that commercial activities could be conducted on a non-interference basis.

As chair of COMSTAC, Gold said he appreciates the committee’s continuing support for the “vital role” of FAA/AST in creating a stable and predictable environment for U.S. companies interested in commercial lunar activities.

In addition to the funding specifically for FAA/AST in the FAA’s Operations account, the President’s budget request includes $2.953 million for safety-related activities in FAA’s Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) account (up from $2 million in FY2016), and $2 million as part of a $20 million request for Air Traffic Management (ATM) in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) account.  The latter is for integrating commercial space launches into the National Air Space (NAS).

The House committee approved $2.0 million instead of the $2.953 million requested for
safety-related activities in RE&D.  No explanation was provided.  It also approved the full $20 million for ATM and therefore, presumably, the $2 million for commercial space integration into the NAS.

The Senate committee approved $2.473 million for RE&D safety (labeling it commercial space transportation “security”) and the entire $20 million for ATM.

The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the T-HUD bill tomorrow (May 24) at 10:30 am ET along with the Commerce-Justice-Science bill that funds NASA and NOAA. [UPDATE:  The committee approved the T-HUD and CJS bills on May 24.]


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