Senate Appropriators Nix Bureau of Space Commerce Until They Get Answers

Senate Appropriators Nix Bureau of Space Commerce Until They Get Answers

The Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the Trump Administration’s request to elevate the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) to a higher level in the Department of Commerce (DOC) until they get answers to their questions. The committee criticized DOC for refusing to provide witnesses to explain the proposal, especially that DOC take over responsibility from DOD for providing satellite positional data to civil and commercial satellite operators.  The Senate bill requires a study by the National Academy of Public Administration and keeps OSC where it is, within NOAA, at its current funding level until it has the results.

President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) directs DOC to become the interface with civil and commercial satellite operators for getting Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data and eventually Space Traffic Management (STM) services.

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.

DOD is the only U.S. agency that collects and analyzes SSA data now, providing “conjunction analyses” to warn if two satellites might collide with each other.  It shares that information with domestic and foreign satellite operators, but as more and more countries and companies launch more and more satellites, the task is becoming overwhelming.  DOD wants another agency to take over interfacing with the non-military community.

No one has authority today to compel a satellite operator to move a satellite to avoid a collision as envisioned in STM discussions.

Another Trump Space Policy Directive, SPD-2, assigns other responsibilities to DOC that would make it a “one-stop shop” for the U.S. commercial space industry.  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is enthusiastic about DOC expanding its role in commercial space and wants to create a Bureau of Space Commerce reporting directly to him. That requires congressional authorization and Congress is still debating what role DOC should play versus the Department of Transportation (DOT).  The FAA, part of DOT, already regulates, facilitates and promotes the commercial space launch industry and its experience in air traffic control is seen by some as a natural fit for taking on STM.

The division of responsibilities between DOT and DOC in commercial space began in 1983 during the Reagan Administration. In 1988, the Secretary of Commerce established OSC within his office, but it has had a complicated history since then.  In 1996, it became part of DOC’s Technology Administration and was codified there by Congress in the Technology Administration Act of 1998 as the Office of Space Commercialization.  In 2005, it moved to NOAA.  In 2015, Congress restored the name as Office of Space Commerce in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, but it remains part of NOAA.  Kevin O’Connell was named director of the office last year.

NOAA also was assigned the task of regulating the commercial remote sensing satellite industry in the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act and does so through its office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA).

At the moment OSC and CRSRA are funded at $1.8 million each. The Administration’s FY2020 proposal is to merge OSC and CRSRA and move the combined $3.6 million out of NOAA to DOC’s Management account and add another $6.4 million — for a total of $10 million.  That would be a first step towards creating the Bureau of Space Commerce while waiting for Congress to act on authorization legislation.

In its markup of the FY2020 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill yesterday (S. Rept. 116-127), the Senate Appropriations Committee said no, citing DOC’s refusal to provide sufficient information.

The Committee twice invited senior officials from the Department to offer public testimony before the Committee on the proposal to establish an Office of Space Commerce within the Office of the Secretary, among other topics. Unfortunately, both of the individuals refused to testify, and the public testimony that was offered did not quell the concerns of the Committee, specifically regarding the proposed transfer of space traffic management responsibilities from the Department of Defense to the DOC. — Senate Appropriations Committee

The committee directed the Secretary of Commerce to enter into a contract with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) within 60 days of the bill’s enactment to conduct an independent review of the proposal. NAPA will have one year to do the study. The committee provided $1.1 million to pay for it.

That means the committee would not have the study until late calendar year 2020 at the earliest (depending on when this bill is enacted), delaying a decision probably until FY2022.

For now, OSC and CRSRA will remain where they are in NOAA.  The committee approved $1.8 million for each of them.

The House Appropriations Committee also rejected the Administration’s proposal,  but a Babin amendment was adopted during floor debate that partially overturned that decision.  While it did not add the extra money, it did merge the budget accounts and move them out of NOAA to the Department Management account.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.