Office of Space Commerce Gets Boost from Senate, But Will Remain in NOAA

Office of Space Commerce Gets Boost from Senate, But Will Remain in NOAA

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a significant funding increase for NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC) for FY2021.  The committee did not, however, agree to elevating OSC out of NOAA and into the office of the Secretary of Commerce who wants to create a Bureau of Space Commerce with expanded responsibilities. A separate bill to do just that will be marked up by a different Senate committee next week.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, released all 12 FY2021 appropriations bills today including Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS).  The bills will not go through subcommittee or full committee markup or a vote on the Senate floor apparently. What was released today will be used as the basis for negotiations with the House, which has passed 10 of the 12 bills already, including its own version of CJS.

The top Democrat on the Senate committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)), said he is “very disappointed” Senate Republicans decided to bypass the normal steps in the appropriations process, but agreed on the urgency to get the bills enacted before the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on December 11.

In 2018, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3, assigning the Department of Commerce (DOC) the role of serving as the civil agency responsible for interacting with non-military space operators on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management (STM).

SSA and STM are different, but the terms often are used interchangeably. 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, but wants to be relieved of that responsibility for the civil and commercial sectors so it can focus on military requirements. 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.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is enthusiastic about taking on the job and OSC is already working within its limited resources to create an Open Architecture Data Repository (OADR) as the first step in what it hopes will be its SSA/STM role in the future.

NOAA, part of DOC, is home to OSC and the Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA), each typically funded at about $1.8 million per year. Ross wants to merge OSC and CRSRA and move them out of NOAA up to his office where they would be the nucleus of a new Bureau of Space Commerce with even broader space regulatory responsibilities.

Congress is wary of creating a new bureaucracy, however, and until now neither the House nor Senate has been convinced OSC needs additional funding.

For FY2020, the Senate Appropriations Committee required an independent study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on the pros and cons of the proposal after Ross declined to send anyone to testify to the committee about it.  Last year’s appropriations bill added $500,000 to help pay for the study so OSC got $2.3 million and CRSRA received $1.8 million, a combined total of $4.1 million.

For FY2021, the Trump Administration requested $15 million for the combined OSC/CRSRA and to move their funding from NOAA to the “departmental management” account where the Secretary’s office is funded.  The House Appropriations Committee denied both the funding increase and the office relocation, saying it was looking forward to the NAPA report.

The NAPA report was released in August and endorsed the Administration’s proposal.  It apparently succeeded in persuading the Senate Appropriations Committee to merge OSC and CRSRA and increase their combined funding to $11.8 million, but not the move out of NOAA.

In its explanatory statement, the committee directed NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) to work with OSC to initiate a STM pilot program “in collaboration with industry, to develop STM technical prototypes, initiate open architecture data repository, and perform STM demonstrations and experiments.” NESDIS is responsible for the nation’s civil weather satellites as well as space weather satellites.

The issue of whether or not to create a Bureau of Space Commerce really falls within the jurisdiction of authorization committees, which set policy, not appropriations committees, which provide funding.  The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee authorizes activities at DOC and legislation to establish a Bureau of Space Commerce has cleared that committee twice. In the 115th Congress, the Space Frontier Act got so far as passing the Senate and almost passed in the House, but was defeated at the last minute for unrelated reasons.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) reintroduced it in this Congress and the Commerce Committee approved it in April 2019, but there has been no further action.

Last month, Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency Act (SPACE) that is more narrowly focused than the Space Frontier Act on creating the Bureau of Space Commerce.  Today, the committee announced it will mark up the bill, S. 4827, next week.

It is conceivable Congress could pass the bill before the end of the year even though time is running short.  There is broad agreement that action is urgently needed to improve tracking of space objects, including orbital debris, and warning satellite operators of potential collisions. They not only pose dangers to operating spacecraft, but produce even more debris increasing the risk of more collisions.

That includes the International Space Station, which recently had to maneuver to avoid a collision. NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel expressed dismay at the lack of congressional action on SSA/STM at its July meeting, warning that “the nation cannot wait any longer.”

One possible complication is that the Obama Administration wanted the FAA, not DOC, to be in charge. Whether House Democrats will now agree to OSC doing it since it has spent almost two years working on the OADR already remains to be seen.

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