Mission Authorized

Companies, in general, aren’t fans of additional regulation, particularly anything that would make it harder or more expensive to do business.

However, some in the commercial space industry are embracing a concept that would, in effect, provide additional — albeit light — regulation of their activities to avoid bigger questions about their legality.

The issue is related to Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty, the foundation of international space law. That section requires nations to carry out “authorization and continuing supervision” of the space activities of its citizens. In the U.S., that authorization and supervision is done through licensing of commercial activities: by the FAA for launches and reentries, the FCC for communications, and NOAA for remote sensing.

But what if you’re planning a commercial space station? Or a satellite servicing venture? Or mining an asteroid? Which agency would be responsible for that oversight, and how they would do it, creates uncertainties not just for the government, but also the companies planning those ventures and their investors.

Deep Space Industries' Harvestor 1 asteriod-mining concept

Deep Space Industries’ Harvestor 1 asteriod-mining concept

The concern is not new. In the last few years, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has proposed taking on what it called “on-orbit authority,” overseeing commercial space activities after launch and before reentry. Last year’s Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act requires the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to prepare a report with recommendations on such an approach that would meet treaty obligations but also “minimize burdens to the industry.”

At the FAA’s recent Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, Ben Roberts, the assistant director for civil and commercial space at OSTP, said the administration is finalizing a draft of such a concept, called “mission authorization.” The concept is similar to the existing payload review the FAA performs as part of the launch licensing process, where it checks with other agencies to see if there are any national security, international treaty, or other concerns about a launch’s payload.

“The assumption going in would be that these authorizations would be approved, absent some kind of problem along those lines,” Roberts said during a conference panel. The authorizations could come with conditions, such as restricting a satellite servicing vehicle from approaching some classes of spacecraft, but would otherwise not be too restrictive. “We wanted to create something that was a very light touch,” he said.

Mission authorizations, he added, would not apply to those classes of satellites already licensed by the FCC or NOAA, easing worries of more conventional commercial space companies of a greater regulatory burden. “We view the mission authorization proposal as something that would allow companies to be able to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do” because of the lack of clear oversight, he said.

Entrepreneurial space has long had something of a libertarian streak, and thus some might bristle at the concept of requiring government permission to do anything in space. But as the industry matures and attracts investors who want to minimize regulatory risks, a little bit of authorization could go a long way.