Office of Space Commerce Funding Needed “Urgently,” Says Ross, But Senate Appropriators Reticent

Office of Space Commerce Funding Needed “Urgently,” Says Ross, But Senate Appropriators Reticent

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told a Senate appropriations subcommittee today that boosting funding for the Office of Space Commerce and elevating it within the Department is “urgently” needed.  The subcommittee’s top Republican and Democrat expressed reticence, however, because the Senate has not yet passed authorization legislation to make such organizational changes.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testifying to the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, March 5, 2020.

Ross testified to the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee chaired by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) about the Department’s overall request for FY2021.  Much of the discussion was about trade and the census, but in his opening remarks Ross characterized the Office of Space Commerce as his second highest priority and one that “urgently needs funding in FY2021.”

The Trump Administration is requesting that the budget accounts for the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) and the Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA), both now part of NOAA, be merged and moved to the Departmental Management account that funds Ross’s office.  Although that would not officially reorganize the Department, it would bring those activities under Ross’s direct supervision.  The request is for a total of $15 million, an increase of $10.9 million over the combined total for those two offices in FY2020.

The same request was made last year, though for a total of $10 million rather than $15 million, but appropriators denied it.  This committee explained that despite two requests, the Department declined to send any witnesses to explain why it was a good idea.  Instead, they directed that an independent study be conducted to get those answers.

President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-3 expands the Department’s role in commercial space activities.  In particular, it directs the Department to take on the responsibility of interfacing with civil and commercial satellite operators on Space Situational Awareness (SSA).  DOD currently provides conjunction analyses to warn of potential collisions for everyone, but wants to be relieved of doing that for the non-military sector so it can focus on its own requirements.

That is just one aspect of what the Trump Administration has in mind for the Department, however, which it wants to turn into a “one-stop shop” for commercial space regulation.  Ross envisions the combined OSC/CRSRA as the nucleus of a new Bureau of Space Commerce.  The budget proposal is a step in that direction.

Creating a Bureau requires authorization legislation.  The House and Senate came close to passing such a bill, the Space Frontier Act, at the end of the 115th Congress, but it was defeated for unrelated reasons.  Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate in this Congress, but nothing has passed.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), chairing Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee hearing, March 5, 2020.

That is what Moran and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), are concerned about.  “There are a few steps that … I still believe need to take place first,” Moran said.  Shaheen agreed.  “We are generally discouraged from authorizing in appropriations bills. …  Why are we trying to authorize through the appropriations process?”

Moran also asked why it needs to be in the Secretary’s office. Ross replied that elevating it will facilitate cooperation between OSC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), another part of the Department that sets standards.  Noting there are no international rules about SSA or Space Traffic Management, he said “elevating the office will make it much easier for us to get the cooperation of the European Space Agency, of the Australian[s], of the Japanese, and all the others because we need their cooperation and eventually we need standards… It’s an urgent need, it’s an important need and I hope we don’t wait until two satellites collide and cause more space debris and more economic loss…”

Moran also wanted to know how much it costs DOD to perform these functions since he envisioned the funding transferring to the Department, but Ross insisted this is not a matter of money.

“The main purpose is frankly not saving money, as important as that is. The main purpose is improving the conditions under which information is communicated to the satellite industry…. We’re very good at communicating with the commercial sector.  This is a safety issue more than it is a transfer of budget issue.” — Wilbur Ross

Ross called FY2021 a “critically important building block year” in making the transition from DOD to his Department as it aims to “achieve key milestones on the urgent and critical path for standing up an open architecture data repository (OADR) to help the industry avoid catastrophic in-space collisions as soon as possible.”


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