Senate Committee Approves SPACE Act, But Without a Bureau of Space Commerce

Senate Committee Approves SPACE Act, But Without a Bureau of Space Commerce

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act today, but with significant changes from the version introduced last month. Chief among them is the omission of language elevating NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce to a new Bureau of Space Commerce reporting directly to the Secretary of Commerce.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Chairman, and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ranking Member, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Credit: committee website.

S. 4827 as modified by a Wicker-Cantwell-Sinema amendment still assigns responsibility for civil Space Situational Awareness (SSA) to the Department of Commerce as called for in Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), but stops short of creating the Bureau of Space Commerce desired by the White House and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

While the immediate issue is responsibility for non-military SSA, Ross envisioned such a Bureau having much broader regulatory responsibilities for non-traditional space activities.  Initially, in fact, he wanted to create a Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise (SPACE) Administration within the Department, but dialed that back to a Bureau after meeting resistance. Even the idea of a Bureau has not garnered much support in Congress.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees refused the Administration’s request to create the Bureau both last year and this year apparently concerned about establishing another bureaucracy.

Currently, the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) is part of NOAA, as is the Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA), which regulates the commercial remote sensing satellite industry. The idea has been to merge them and elevate them out of NOAA to the Secretary’s office where they would be the nucleus of the Bureau.

In 2018, Congress came very close to passing legislation, the Space Frontier Act, that would have done just that, but the bill failed to pass the House in the closing days of the 115th Congress for unrelated reasons. Efforts to revive the bill, which addresses other commercial space issues as well, in the 116th Congress have not succeeded.

Wicker carved out this part of it in S. 4827. His original version would have created the Bureau and elevated it to the Secretary’s level. The modified version approved today only mentions in a “Sense of Congress” section that elevating it “may enhance the ability of the Office of Space Commerce” to do its work, leaving the issue open for consideration in the future.

The bill authorizes $15 million in FY2021 for OSC, the amount requested for a combined OSC and CRSRA, but S. 4827 does not mention CRSRA at all.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $11.8 million in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill for the combined OSC/CRSRA. The House-passed bill funded OSC at $1.8 million, its usual level, although it received $2.3 million in FY2020 to help pay for a congressionally-required study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on the issue. CRSRA was funded separately at $1.8 million.

The NAPA report came out in August and supported assigning civil SSA to the Department of Commerce and creating a Bureau of Space Commerce. That was after the House acted on its CJS appropriations bill. The Senate CJS appropriations bill was just released last week so the NAPA report may have been influential in getting OSC more funding even if not the office relocation.  The House and Senate are negotiating the final version of the FY2021 appropriations bills right now.

DOD historically has been the provider of data on the locations of objects in Earth orbit to the public, but wants to be relieved of interfacing with non-military satellite operators so it can focus on its own mission.  There is broad agreement on that score, but not on which civil agency should take it on. The Obama Administration wanted to assign it to the FAA in the Department of Transportation, but did not get it done by the end of Obama’s term.

The Trump Administration chose the Department of Commerce instead and revitalized NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce as the lead.  It has been working diligently with the meager funds it has with an initial focus on creating on Open Architecture Data Repository for the data from DOD as well as from private companies that now are developing their own space tracking networks.

The data are used to calculate “conjunction analyses” or collision probabilities and alert satellite operators who then must decide whether to move their satellites or not. The data are not sufficiently precise to predict collisions with 100 percent certainty and sometimes moving a satellite simply puts it in danger of colliding with another.

Although space is vast, the number of functioning satellites and non-functioning space debris, especially in low Earth orbit  where the International Space Station operates, is expanding at an alarming rate.

Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In July, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) expressed dismay that Congress has not acted on SSA and Space Traffic Management (STM), warning that “the nation cannot wait any longer.”  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine conveyed the same message to the Senate Commerce Committee at a September 30 hearing.

The modified version of S. 4827 adopted by the committee today formally allows OSC to assume the civil SSA role.  It also allows for awarding grants to establish Centers of Excellence for Space Situational Awareness by consortia led by institutions of higher education or nonprofits. No funding is authorized for the Centers in the bill, which states only that the grants are subject to appropriations. The Centers would conduct “transdisciplinary” research, development and demonstration projects related to SSA. Each consortium may include one or more commercial entities, federal laboratories or other institutions of higher education or nonprofits.

Time is running out to get legislation passed in the 116th Congress, but the end-of-Congress rush often produces surprising results, so it certainly is a possibility.

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