Senate Commerce Committee Again Approves SPACE Act

Senate Commerce Committee Again Approves SPACE Act

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved Sen. Roger Wicker’s SPACE Act again today.  Like the version that cleared the committee last year, it formally assigns civil space situational awareness to the Department of Commerce, but falls short of creating a Bureau of Space Commerce as the original bill proposed.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) at Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Executive Session, May 12, 2021. Screengrab.

The Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act of 2021 passed the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today as an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act (S. 1260). Offered by Wicker (R-MS) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ranking Member and Chair, respectively, of the committee, the amendment also includes a 2021 NASA Authorization Act.

The “Cantwell_1 (as modified)” amendment was adopted as part of an en-bloc package with no debate at the beginning of today’s markup. S. 1260, as amended, passed the committee on a vote of 24-4.

The underlying  bill, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and a number other Democrats and Republicans, is designed to ensure U.S. global technological leadership by boldly investing in innovation to successfully compete with China. With the backing of the Majority Leader, the bill has a higher chance of getting consideration and perhaps passage by the Senate than most other legislation, making it a tempting target to add other measures that otherwise might fail to reach the floor. Dozens and dozens of amendments were offered today.

Wicker’s original SPACE Act (S. 4827, 116th Congress) would have created a Bureau of Space Commerce at the Department of Commerce (DOC), a priority for then-Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. But by the time it cleared the committee in November 2020, that language had been stripped.  Instead the bill went only as far as mentioning that the existing Office of Space Commerce (OSC), part of NOAA, might benefit from being elevated higher in the Department.

The bill adopted today in the Cantwell amendment appears identical to the modified version of S. 4827 that cleared the committee last year.

The Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) assigned DOC responsibility for interfacing with civil and commercial satellite operators for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) — knowing where satellites and pieces of space debris are located in Earth orbit and issuing warnings (“conjunction analyses”) of impending collisions.

DOD currently does SSA for all satellite operators, but is eager to focus only on its own national security space requirements and have another government agency deal with non-military users.

The goal of transferring civil SSA to another agency dates back to the Obama Administration, but years have passed as debates ensued over what agency should get the task and how much money was needed. SPD-3 clearly assigned it to DOC in 2018, but congressional appropriators were not convinced it was the right place until the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) agreed last year. After years of meager funding, appropriators finally agreed to merge OSC and NOAA’s Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) with a combined budget of $10 million for FY2021.

Kevin O’Connell was appointed to head OSC in July 2018 and focused first on creating an Open Architecture Data Repository (OADR). U.S. Space Command tracks space objects and provides unclassified data to the world for free on the website.  Several commercial companies also now have their own satellite tracking networks. The OADR can combine data from all those sources, some of which would be available for free while more detailed information could be obtained for a price.

Ross’s vision of the role of DOC in commercial space went far beyond SSA and regulating commercial remote sensing satellites. The Department would become a “one-stop shop” for commercial space companies to get whatever regulatory approvals (“mission authorizations”) they needed not already provided by other agencies, and promote the U.S. commercial space sector globally.

The question is what priority the Biden Administration is giving to these efforts. As a political appointee, O’Connell left at the end of the Trump Administration. Others departed as details and term-limited appointments ended.

In an op-ed in Space News on Monday, Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation worried that the vision of OSC promoting and encouraging commercial space activities “is beginning to revert to the way things used to be.”

The SPACE Act at least would codify DOC’s role in SSA and create a grant program to fund Centers of Excellence to advance scientific, technological, transdisciplinary, and policy research in SSA.  For FY2021, it authorizes $15 million for OSC plus $20 million for grants.

Weeden told by email this evening that he sees the bill as “a positive step.” The Centers of Excellence “could help spark more research that we need.”  Currently “nearly all of the funding and investment” is for Space Domain Awareness, DOD’s term for SSA, and “there’s virtually none looking at the broader civil, commercial, and safety aspects of SSA.”

But he also pointed out that the bill does not address the mission authorization question.

I do note the bill is silent on the issue of mission authorization, which was pushed by both the Obama and Trump Administrations as a necessary step to solve the gap between the current licensing authorities of the FAA, NOAA, and FCC and the new types of missions the commercial sector is planning. That is a big part of moving towards the space traffic management framework that’s still missing.  — Brian Weeden

Diane Howard, OSC’s former Chief Counsel for Space Commerce, is glad to see congressional support.  Via email she said “OSC needs to be elevated and DOC has statutory authority to allow this already. No matter what, the U.S. (and OSC’s) success with the space safety mission depends upon strong and constructive leadership.”

The challenges of tracking space objects and avoiding collisions grow bigger literally every day. U.S. Space Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron is tracking more than 27,000 space objects right now. With launches of mega-constellations of small communications satellites like Starlink and Kuiper, each involving thousands of satellites, in addition to space debris, the urgency to address the issue seems obvious to ensure the safety of space operations, including the International Space Station.

Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

As Weeden says in his op-ed, the change in administrations appears to be slowing the momentum begun by O’Connell and his OSC colleagues. “The Biden administration needs to act quickly to address this situation before it is too late.”

Action probably cannot wait for Wicker’s bill to become law. Even as part of the Endless Frontier Act, it is not likely to be enacted quickly. The House has its own version of that bill, the “NSF for the Future Act.”  The top Republican on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), signaled his dissatisfaction with the  committee-approved Senate bill today, slamming it for spreading “billions around to serve every special interest” instead of focusing on advancing American innovation.

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.