Hyten, Bridenstine: No Time to Waste Getting Civil SSA Agency

Hyten, Bridenstine: No Time to Waste Getting Civil SSA Agency

Gen. John Hyten and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told two congressional committees today that this is not the time to get caught up in parochial issues over which non-DOD agency should take charge of sharing Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data with non-military users to avoid collisions in space.  The White House has decided it should be the Department of Commerce, but others favor the Department of Transportation (DOT).  At today’s hearing, Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) argued that Congress needs to make the decision, not the White House, and has yet to do its job.

Gen. John Hyten, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command testifies at congressional hearing on space situational awareness, June 22, 2018.

At a joint hearing before subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, Hyten said that as Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), “bluntly, it doesn’t matter to me” which agency gets the job.  Either Commerce or DOT are good candidates.  “It’s a political decision.”

His point is that it should not be DOD.  DOD’s job is to defend against adversaries not inform commercial companies if their satellites are at risk of colliding with someone else’s.  Circumstances put DOD in that role, but it is time to transition it to a civil agency so DOD can focus on meeting its own requirements.

It was only after the 2009 Iridium 33-Cosmos 2251 collision, which created thousand of pieces of space debris, he said, that DOD concluded it needed to interface with the commercial and international sectors to ensure the safety and sustainability of space operations.  Since then, private sector plans to launch constellations of thousands of satellites and the growth in space debris have made it even more imperative to have a system where non-military space users can get reliable SSA data and collision warnings.  A civil agency should do that, he argued.

Widespread agreement exists on that point.  The debate is over whether DOT or Commerce should take it on.

As a Republican Member of Congress from Oklahoma, Bridenstine originally championed DOT.  It already is in charge of air traffic control and has the Office of Commercial Space Transportation facilitating, promoting and regulating commercial space launch companies.  His American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) advocated for DOT and the Obama White House agreed.

Other congressional Republicans, however, pressed for the role to be assigned to Commerce.  That position was adopted by the Trump Administration.  Bridenstine said today that his views have “shifted” and he now agrees it should be Commerce.

Bera, the top Democrat on the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, thinks the matter should be debated in, and resolved by, Congress.  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross also was a witness at the hearing and told the committees that he is “eager” to do it, but Bera said he did not want Commerce making any definitive plans until Congress acts.

It was on that point that Hyten and Bridenstine insisted that it is time to move on rather than debating which agency should be in charge — there is no time to waste.

On Monday, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), designating Commerce as the agency to provide U.S. government-derived basic SSA data and basic Space Traffic Management (STM) services to the public — that is, non-DOD agencies and the commercial sector.

Generally speaking, SSA refers to knowing what objects are in space, where they are and where they are going.  STM adds authority to require satellite operators to move their satellites to avoid collisions much as air traffic controllers direct aircraft.  No one has STM authority today and Ross repeatedly referred to it as space traffic “coordination” rather than “management.”

Republicans on the House SS&T Committee agree with the White House.  The committee will mark up the American Space SAFE Management Act on June 27.  A draft of the bill is posted on the committee’s website.  Like SPD-3, it would designate Commerce to have this role.

Bera’s comments today suggest that committee Democrats may not support it, however.

Whoever takes on this responsibility, many questions remain about the transition itself.  For example,  SPD-3 states that “basic” SSA data and “basic” STM services will be provided “free of direct user fees.”  At the hearing today, however, there did not seem to be a clear sense of what “basic” means in this context.  Bridenstine talked about allowing the private sector to offer “enhanced” services, so those definitions will be crucial.

Whatever comes next, Hyten stressed that DOD will keep a firm hand on SSA and “not let go of one strut until we have hold of the next strut.”

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