House Committee Clears Civil Space Situational Awareness Legislation

House Committee Clears Civil Space Situational Awareness Legislation

The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved legislation today that assigns responsibility for civil Space Situational Awareness (SSA) to the Department of Commerce.  The committee’s Democratic leadership opposed the bill, but two committee Democrats supported it nonetheless. The bill also defines NASA’s role in the science and technology that is fundamental to SSA.

The House SS&T and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) held a joint hearing last week on the issue of SSA and Space Traffic Management (STM).  Essentially SSA is knowing what objects are in space, where they are and where they are going, and who owns them.  STM adds the authority to compel satellite operators to move their satellites to avoid a collision much as air traffic controllers direct aircraft.

DOD currently handles SSA for military and civil users of the space domain, but wants to be relieved of its responsibility for interfacing with the civil sector, including commercial and international entities, so it can focus on its military requirements.  No one has STM authority now.

There is broad agreement that civil SSA should be transitioned from DOD to a civil agency.  The debate is over which agency.  The Obama Administration favored the Department of Transportation, which already has experience in air traffic control and regulates the commercial space transportation industry.

The Trump Administration, however, chose the Department of Commerce.  President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) on June 18 making it official.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA). Credit: Bera website.

At last week’s hearing, Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), argued that it was too soon to make a decision on which agency should do it.  He said it was a decision Congress should make and Congress had not yet done its job.  Bera is the top Democrat on the House SS&T Space Subcommittee.

Today, however, he sided with Republicans in supporting the bill, H.R. 6226, the American Space SAFE Management Act, which assigns the task to Commerce.  That put him at odds which his own committee leadership.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, insisted on the point Bera made last week — that Congress needs to study the issue before making a decision.  She offered an amendment to replace the existing text of the bill with language requiring a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  The amendment was defeated 13-17 after Bera and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) broke with their Democratic colleagues and voted against it.

Bera and Perlmutter said that an amendment by committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) satisfied their concerns.  That amendment requires DOD and Commerce to submit a transition plan on how they will avoid a gap in SSA information and services.  It was adopted by voice vote.

Perlmutter did add that he thought there were two issues he hopes will be further explored as the bill continues through the legislative process:  immunity and voluntary guidelines.

Smith’s amendment was the only one adopted.  The bill was approved by voice vote.

Smith cited letters of support from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Bigelow Aerospace, Maxar Technologies and SpaceX.

A committee summary of the bill lists its major provisions:

  • Directs NASA to develop a plan for science and technology R&D activities to improve space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic coordination capabilities
  • Establishes a NASA Center of Civil Space Situational Awareness Science and Technology Excellence
  • Establishes a civilian Space Situational Awareness Program at the Department of Commerce to provide information and services to spacecraft operators
  • Requires a basic set of SSA information and services for no charge and allows fees for additional information and services
  • Promotes opportunities for U.S. private sector SSA data and service providers to participate in and contribute to the Program
  • Establishes an SSA data testbed to provide public access to certain SSA data
  • Provides for NASA technical expertise to be leveraged by the Department of Commerce on a reimbursable basis
  • Directs the Secretary of Commerce to develop voluntary civil space traffic coordination guidelines and facilitate the development of industry standards
  • Creates a five-year space traffic coordination pilot program at the Department of Commerce to facilitate communication, negotiation, and resolution by civil spacecraft operators

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