UAG Endorses Single Agency for Mission Authorization

UAG Endorses Single Agency for Mission Authorization

The White House National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group is recommending that a single agency be designated to oversee the regulation of novel space activities, the so-called “mission authorization” function. Composed primarily of industry representatives, the UAG provides external advice to the Space Council, which is chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris. The recommendation is at odds with what the Space Council itself recently proposed — a bifurcated arrangement where mission authorization is split between the Department of Commerce and Department of Transportation.

The National Space Council was created by Congress in the 1989 NASA Authorization Act and by law is chaired by the Vice President. Two years later in the 1991 NASA Authorization Act, Congress added a Users’ Advisory Group of external advisors to ensure industry and other non-government entities have a voice in Council deliberations.

Vice President Kamala Harris (center) and UAG Chair Gen. Les Lyles meet following the February 23, 2023 UAG meeting. White House photo.

Vice President Harris announced the members of the UAG for the Biden-Harris administration one year ago. Chaired by Gen. Les Lyles (Ret.), the UAG met in February and again last Friday, December 1.

In between, each of the UAG’s six subcommittees have been meeting with experts and writing white papers and associated findings and recommendations. Operating under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), they may hold fact finding meetings in private, but deliberations must be done in public as they were on Friday.

Among the many issues was mission authorization — determining what government agency or agencies should regulate novel commercial space activities to ensure the United States complies with its international treaty obligations. Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the space activities of non-governmental entities.

The topic has been debated for many years without resolution. Some argue the Department of Transportation (DOT) should be in charge since it already regulates commercial space launches and reentries, while others favor the Department of Commerce (DOC) that regulates commercial remote sensing satellites.

Generally speaking there has been a sense that DOT and DOC should keep their current responsibilities, along with the Federal Communications Commission that assigns radio frequencies, but all new space activities like satellite servicing and on-orbit manufacturing should be regulated by just one of them — a “one-stop shop” to make it easier for companies to navigate government requirements. The question has been which agency.

However, on November 15, the Space Council released a proposal that splits responsibilities between DOC and DOT.  The concept is at odds with legislation that was being marked up by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that very day that would assign it to DOC. A final vote on the legislation was postponed to November 29. In the interim, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry group, wrote to Congress strongly criticizing the Space Council’s position and urging Congress to assign mission authorization to DOC.

Karina Drees, President of CSF, signed that letter and is also a member of the UAG. At Friday’s meeting, she presented a summary of a white paper she and others prepared for the UAG that made a number of recommendations including that mission authorization be “[m]anaged by a single agency to minimize confusion and compliance burden.”

Presentation to the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group (UAG) by UAG member Karina Drees, December 1, 2023. Screengrab.

She and other UAG members acknowledged that the Space Council proposal had already been sent to Capitol Hill, but thought it important to send this forward to the Space Council nonetheless as a consensus of industry input. Lyles suggested UAG members meet with Space Council staff and representatives of the departments for further discussions. UAG member Eric Fanning, President of the Aerospace Industries Association, agreed noting there are some differences between not only the UAG and Space Council positions, but those of the House committee — which approved its bill on a party-line vote — and its Senate counterpart, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

The mission authorization discussion was only a small part of the UAG’s three-hour meeting. Each of the six subcommittees offered findings and recommendations on topics ranging from space sustainability to climate to national security space and many more.

Organization of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group. Screengrab from December 1, 2023 UAG meeting.

The UAG’s Designated Federal Officer told via email that Lyles will send a memo to the Space Council with the Group’s recommendations and the Space Council’s Executive Secretary Chirag Parikh will respond to the UAG.

Some of the recommendations overlapped and will be consolidated, so what was presented is not necessarily the final word. The white papers, the slides and a video of the virtual meeting should be posted on the UAG website in due course.

Valda Vikmanis Keller, Director, Office of Space Affairs, U.S. State Department

The meeting kicked off with a presentation by Valda Vikmanis Keller, Director of the State Department’s Office of Space Affairs in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Her key message was that there is a “misperception” that the space is a “wild West in orbit led by the U.S. private sector with the U.S. government turning a blind eye.”

On the contrary, she emphasized, the U.S. government is deeply involved as a partner, funder and regulator. We take “our international obligations under international law very seriously,” pointing to the first State Department Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy released by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 30, 2023.

Space sustainability and “preventing, mitigating, and removing space debris” are at the top of the list of her office’s efforts and require significant international collaboration and cooperation. They also are deeply involved in creating international standards and norms for the peaceful exploration and use of space.

One of those is the Artemis Accords, a set of non-binding principles for responsible behavior on the Moon. Angola just became the 33rd signatory. All countries are welcome to join regardless of their space-faring capabilities.

Credit: NASA

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