Safety Panel Laments Lack of Congressional Action on Space Traffic Management

Safety Panel Laments Lack of Congressional Action on Space Traffic Management

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) expressed dismay at the delay in congressional action on designating an agency to take responsibility for civil space traffic management (STM).  Citing the growing dangers from space debris to the International Space Station and other NASA activities, the panel warned “the nation cannot wait any longer.”

Unlike many advisory committees, ASAP reports to Congress as well as NASA.  It was created by Congress following the fatal Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Panel chair Pat Sanders and other members ended ASAP’s third quarterly meeting of the year today with forceful statements on the growing threat from space debris and the burgeoning number of satellites in an era of cubesats, nanosats, and mega-constellations.

The International Space Station (ISS) has had to maneuver 26 times to avoid collisions already and NASA’s other satellites in low Earth orbit also are at risk.

Sanders said the panel was encouraged when President Trump issued Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) assigning the Department of Commerce (DOC) responsibility for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and STM for the civil and commercial sectors.  The Air Force currently tracks space objects and warns satellite operators of potential collisions, but wants to be relieved of that duty for non-military users so it can focus on its own requirements.

DOC is eager to take on that assignment, but requires congressional authorization as well as appropriations to provide requisite resources.

SPD-3 was issued in June 2018. Two years later the White House still has not been able to convince key Republicans or Democrats to do that.  A jurisdictional issue in the House is another impediment.

“We are dismayed” at the lack of action, Sanders said, offering recommendations that —

  • Congress designate a lead federal agency for civil STM and provide it with authority, immunity from lawsuits, and resources to do the job;
  • Congress require whole-of-government engagement, public-private partnerships, and collaboration among government, industry, academia, and the international community;
  • NASA support and partner with the lead federal agency once one is designated;
  • NASA, in the interim, ensure that risks from Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD), SSA and STM are addressed in NASA’s ongoing activities and future budget requests; and
  • NASA, in collaboration with other government agencies and industry, develop and publish guidelines for STM focused on current and emerging challenges to maintaining the safety of astronauts and spacecraft, and develop a proposal for a STM technology roadmap.

“ASAP is firm in its belief that the nation cannot wait any longer to aggressively act,” Sanders warned, adding that the panel will be following up with the appropriate congressional committees and NASA.  “You can expect to hear more from us on this in the future.”

Authorizing DOC and its Office of Space Commerce to take on these new tasks is within the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee. They came very close to passing legislation in 2018, the Space Frontier Act, which covered a broad range of issues at NASA, DOC, and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which regulates the commercial space launch business. In the final moments, however, the bill was defeated in the House because of opposition from members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who feel they also have jurisdiction since they oversee the FAA as a whole.  House SS&T has oversight only of FAA/AST.

That jurisdictional issue apparently remains unresolved, perhaps one factor in the lack of House action.  For its part, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a new version of the Space Frontier Act (S. 919) last year, but it has not progressed further.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the main sponsor of the bill, speaks bitterly about the gridlock, which is also holding up congressional direction on commercial space regulations. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) reintroduced his bill (H.R. 3610) from the previous Congress, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, last year as well, but there has been no action.

Appropriations are not faring any better. The Trump Administration actually wants DOC to take on other regulatory space activities as well as SSA/STM.  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross plans to elevate the Office of Space Commerce out of NOAA and into his own office where it would become the nucleus of a new Bureau of Space Commerce. Appropriators are worried about creating a new, expensive bureaucracy.

An outstanding issue is whether DOC is the best agency for the job in the first place.  The Obama Administration wanted STM and other space regulatory authorities assigned to the Department of Transportation, of which FAA is part, but did not get that done before it left office.

For FY2020, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee directed DOC to contract with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) for an independent assessment of the pros and cons of the Trump Administration’s proposal.  The House agreed. The NAPA report is expected in September.

Whether it helps or hurts the Trump Administration’s case remains to be seen. The outcome of the November elections may also play into the outcome. In short, ASAP may find that getting a resolution to this issue is a challenge as daunting as it is urgent.

This article has been updated.


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