NAPA Endorses Office of Space Commerce for Space Traffic Management Role

NAPA Endorses Office of Space Commerce for Space Traffic Management Role

The Trump Administration’s plan to put the Department of Commerce in charge of non-military space traffic management just won the endorsement of a congressionally-requested independent review. The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) also agreed that the Office of Space Commerce, now part of NOAA, should be elevated to the Secretary of Commerce’s office and urged Congress to pass authorizing legislation.

President Trump’s 2018 Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) called for transferring responsibility for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) for the civil and commercial sectors from DOD to Commerce, and to make Commerce responsible for Space Traffic Management (STM).

SSA basically is knowing where space objects are, calculating the probability they might collide with each other, and warning satellite operators as necessary. DOD currently does that for everyone. STM would go further, granting authority to tell satellite operators they have to move their spacecraft similar to air traffic control. No one has STM authority today.

DOD is eager to have some other government agency take charge of SSA for non-military satellite operators so it can focus on its own requirements. It would continue to monitor the location of all space objects and make the unclassified catalog publicly available, as it does now. But collision (or “conjunction”) analyses and warnings for the civil and commercial sectors would transition elsewhere. There is broad agreement that DOD should be relieved of the task, but not on what agency should take it over.  Whoever it is, one goal of SPD-3 is a closer relationship between the government and commercial companies who now are collecting their own data on the location of space objects in addition to DOD’s preeminent catalog.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) website

The future of SSA/STM became part of a bigger issue of what agency should regulate novel space activities like asteroid mining. During the Obama Administration, the FAA was favored, but the Trump Administration chose Commerce. It proposed taking the small Office of Space Commerce (OSC) within NOAA and elevating it to the Departmental level where it would be the nucleus of a new Bureau of Space Commerce in charge of SSA/STM and regulating space activities not already under the jurisdiction of FCC or FAA.

Congress is not convinced on who should be in charge and leery of creating another large bureaucracy. Last year the Senate Appropriations Committee asked NAPA to take an independent look at  the various alternatives for SSA and STM. NAPA’s report, Space Traffic Management, was publicly released today.

NAPA assessed the relative capabilities of Commerce, Defense, FAA, and NASA to do SSA for non-military users and build partnerships with the private sector. Its bottom-line recommendation is that Commerce is the best choice.

After considering the requirements incumbent upon a civilian SSA/STM agency, and the relative strengths of four candidate entities, the Academy Panel recommends that the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) in the Department of Commerce be selected to conduct the SSA/STM mission, as per Space Policy Directive-3. The Panel further recommends that OSC be elevated to the Office of the Secretary of Commerce, should the Secretary of Commerce deem it appropriate.

The Panel also requests that the Congress enact authorizing legislation without delay to ensure that OSC has the requisite on-orbit authorities that would allow it to promulgate STM regulations for operations that fall outside the current licensing and continuing supervision framework. The Congress was also asked to provide the Department of Commerce with a mixture of appropriated funds and authority to assess and employ fee-for-service to build out the office as needed.

Scott Pace, Deputy Assistant to the President and Executive Secretary of the White House National Space Council, who was deeply involved in writing SPD-3, cheered the report.  In a press release issued by Commerce, he said that NAPA affirmed “exactly what was intended” in SPD-3, “an innovative approach that, consistent with Administration policy, harnesses the private sector to help with an urgent and changing problem while advancing American leadership in the area of space safety and sustainability.”

Although the recommendation urges Congress to pass authorization legislation “without delay,” in a briefing to reporters this morning a Commerce official said that the Department believes it already has the authorities necessary to proceed with SSA, primarily a data function, since Commerce already has broad responsibilities for collecting, analyzing and disseminating data. That does not extend to STM, however, a regulatory function.

What is most needed now is money.  OSC’s typical budget is $1.8 million, although it received $2.3 million for FY2020 to help pay for the NAPA study. The FY2021 budget request is $15 million, a considerable increase and the projections keep going up from there. The NAPA report includes a chart prepared by Commerce with funding projections through FY2024 including money to purchase data from commercial sources to add to the Open Architecture Data Repository.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testified to both the House and Senate appropriations committees this spring that the need to fund SSA is “urgent” as the number of space objects, especially debris, keeps growing.  He reiterated that in a tweet today.

The FY2021 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (Division B of H.R. 7617) that passed the House on July 31 approves only the $1.8 million, however. The committee specifically rejected the proposal to move OSC to the departmental level and said in its report that it “looks forward” to the NAPA report.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on the FY2021 request yet.

Authorizing legislation, the Space Frontier Act, almost passed the 115th Congress, but failed at the last moment for unrelated reasons. Efforts by Senator Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s space subcommittee, to move the bill in this Congress have not succeeded so far.

Whether this report convinces Congress at least to provide more money to OSC for SSA in FY2021 remains to be seen. It is widely expected that the government will have to operate under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at least until after the elections so a decision does not seem imminent.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation, told SpacePolicyOnline that he is not optimistic about legislation this year.  “I hope this report gives Congress the evidence it needs to finally make a decision on this issue, although I fear it will probably not happen until the next Congressional cycle.”  He praised the report as “thorough and comprehensive” and said it “validated a lot of what many other reports have said, including the importance of establishing an STM authority as soon as possible.”

The NAPA study was chaired by Michael Dominguez, Director of Strategy, Forces and Resources Division of the Institute for Defense Analyses. He and the other panel members are Fellows of NAPA and include Martin Faga, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, and Sean O’Keefe, former Administrator of NASA.




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