Trump Administration Still Has More To Say About Space Policy–Property Rights and Orbital Debris

Trump Administration Still Has More To Say About Space Policy–Property Rights and Orbital Debris

With only days left before the Trump Administration ends, the White House issued yet two more space policy-related documents. These are not from the National Space Council, though. One is a chapter in the annual report of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) advocating for public-private partnerships and property rights in space.  The other is a research and development plan for orbital debris from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Signaling how the Trump Administration views space in the economic context, the chapter in the CEA report is one of five under the heading of “The Renaissance of American Greatness.”  Others in that section are about opportunity zones, reducing regulatory burdens, expanding educational opportunity, and trade.

The chapter’s focus is space policy and property rights in space.  The CEA is an enthusiast.

With regard to the economic theory of property rights and the large and diverse empirical literature on property rights, the Council of Economic Advisers finds substantial evidence that improving investors’ expectations in a novel economic sector—like space—increases investment in that sector, leading to more innovation and greater benefits. The CEA estimates that private space investment could potentially double in the next eight years, due to President Trump’s executive actions and other enhancements of property rights in space.
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The CEA projects that private investment in the space sector will reach $46 billion a year by 2028 as a result of the policies undertaken to clarify and improve the enforcement of property rights in space.

While property rights consume a fair percentage of the text, the chapter is a broad exposition of the Trump Administration’s embrace of commercial space activities and public-private partnerships across the civil and national security space continuum.

One interesting tidbit within a glowing assessment of the virtues of the commercial crew program answers the question of how much it costs NASA to launch an astronaut on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. NASA has not revealed that information, but a November 2019 NASA Inspector General report estimated the average cost at $55 million. This report says it is $65 million, which it argues compares favorably to the $90 million to fly on Russia’s Soyuz. No mention is made of the cost to fly on Boeing’s Starliner, which the NASA IG estimated at $90 million, the same as Soyuz.

OSTP’s orbital debris research amd development (R&D) plan emanated from an interagency working group of the National Science and Technology Council.  The group included the Departments of Commerce (DOC), Defense (DOD), Interior (DOI), State (DOS) and Transportation (DOT), the FAA (which is part of DOT), NASA, and the White House National Space Council and Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The plan prioritizes 14 areas for further R&D in three categories, identifying the agencies that should consider supporting them, mostly DOD and NASA.

1. Limit debris generation by design. Deliberate spacecraft design choices can limit the generation of new debris.

• Reduce debris during launch (DOD, DOT, NASA)
• Improve resilience of spacecraft surfaces (DOD, NASA)
• Improve shielding and impact resistance (DOD, NASA)
• Develop designs that will reduce or limit fragmentation processes (DOD, NASA)
• Improve maneuverability capabilities (DOC, DOD, NASA)
• Incorporate end-of-mission approaches to minimize debris into spacecraft and mission design (DOD, DOC, DOI, DOT, NASA)

2. Track and characterize debris. Debris tracking and characterization are critical to enabling effective mitigation measures and safe spaceflight operations.

• Characterize orbital debris and the space environment (DOC, DOD, DOI, DOS, DOT, NASA)
• Develop technologies to improve orbital debris tracking and characterization (DOC, DOD, NASA)
• Reduce uncertainties of debris data in orbit propagation and prediction (DOC, DOD, NASA)
• Improve data processing, sharing, and filtering of debris catalogs (DOC, DOD, DOI, DOS, DOT)
• Transition research on debris tracking and characterization into operational capabilities (DOC, DOD, DOS, NASA, DOT)

3. Remediate or repurpose debris. Remediation activities, also called active debris removal, could in the long-term substantially reduce the risk of debris impact in key orbital regimes. Repurposing may also contribute to reducing risk and removing debris.

• Develop remediation and repurposing technologies and techniques for large-debris objects (DOC, DOD, NASA)
• Develop remediation technologies and techniques for small-debris objects (DOC, DOD, NASA)
• Develop models for risk and cost-benefit analyses (DOC, DOD, NASA)

The report acknowledges that research conducted outside the U.S. government also can contribute significantly to meeting the R&D priorities.

R&D conducted outside of the Federal Government—including by industry, academia, and international partners—can also contribute significantly to the R&D priorities identified in this report. The private sector has contributed throughout the space age as a valuable supplier and partner to the Federal Government. The Federal Government conducts fundamental research with academic research groups, and these are well aligned for continued collaboration. Universities and other academic institutions also train scientists and engineers who are critical to maintaining the workforce and sustaining future orbital debris research efforts. Finally, many foreign governments and international organizations are similarly concerned about maintaining the safety of spaceflight operations.


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