Howard: “Urgent Need” for SSA Funding at Department of Commerce

Howard: “Urgent Need” for SSA Funding at Department of Commerce

A Department of Commerce (DOC) official said today there is an “urgent need” for funding to enable the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) to move forward with Space Situational Awareness (SSA) efforts.  Congress appropriated only $2.3 million for OSC in FY2020, about 20 percent of the request.  The Trump Administration is asking for $15 million for FY2021.  In the meantime, OSC is doing all it can with available resources by working closely with other parts of DOC as well as with industry

SSA basically means knowing where objects are in space and where they are going in order to calculate “conjunction analyses” and warn satellite operators of potential collisions.  As more and more countries and companies launch satellites and the amount of space debris grows, SSA is taking on increasing importance.  Committees in the House and Senate held hearings on it just last week.

At a Space Traffic Management conference in Austin, TX today, Diane Howard, OSC’s Chief Counsel, said the hearings were “very welcome,” but are only a first step.

Diane Howard. Credit: Department of Commerce

“There is an urgent need for funding and further action,” she declared.

DOD tracks space objects today and warns military, civil and commercial satellite operators of potential collisions.  It wants to transition responsibility for civil and commercial SSA to another agency, however, so it can focus on military requirements.  In Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), the Trump Administration assigned it to DOC, but others think the FAA is a better fit.  For that and other reasons, Congress has not yet passed legislation assigning it to either agency so the only congressional decisions are through appropriations.

For FY2020, DOC requested $10 million and permission to take steps to create a new Bureau of Space Commerce reporting directly to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.  The idea was to merge the budgets for OSC and the Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA), both currently part of NOAA, a combined total of $3.6 million, add another $6.4 million, and move them to the Departmental Management account.

Appropriators rejected it largely because Ross declined to send any witnesses to explain why that was necessary.

OSC was left in limbo with just $2.3 million and $0.5 million of that was designated to fund an independent study as to whether Ross’s plan is worthwhile.

For FY2021, DOC is again requesting permission to merge the OSC and CRSRA budgets, a total of $4.1 million ($2.3 million and $1.8 million respectively), and add $10.9 million for a total of $15 million.  The number of personnel positions would increase from 11 to 24 (13 new positions, but 11 full time equivalents).

OSC’s major focus right now is creating an Open Architecture Data Repository (OADR) that will pull together data from government and commercial sources on the location of space objects that ultimately will provide conjunction notifications for commercial and international participants.  As described at last week’s hearings, currently available SSA data has many shortcomings. OADR is being designed to use modern technology and business approaches, yielding better services than what is now available.  The goal is to have it ready by 2024, but funding is needed to make that happen.

Still, Howard stressed that some work can be accomplished by working with other parts of DOC, especially NOAA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and industry.

“Budget realities will limit what we can spend on commercial activities, it’s true, but we can still continue to engage with the very robust commercial sector and we will find ways to continue to do that. … Just because we don’t have the budget that we had asked for doesn’t mean we can’t do things. … We have a choice when we face a challenge, you can go big or go home. The Secretary told us to move out, see what we can do. … We are going to make do with what we have.” — Diane Howard

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