The story sounds familiar. Companies in the space industry argue that government regulators are dragging their heels, delaying reviews of license applications or not acting on them at all. They attract the attention of members of Congress, who hold hearings, scold bureaucrats and propose legislative action to resolve the problem.
This time, the problem is not with commercial launches or human spaceflight, or even with emerging commercial markets like asteroid mining or on-orbit servicing. The issue that’s now attracting industry and congressional concern is a relatively mature area: commercial remote sensing. But the regulatory structure that has governed the industry for nearly a quarter-century is showing signs of strain.
One issue is that demand for remote sensing licenses, issued by a small office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has grown dramatically in recent years. Advances in smallsat technologies have made imaging satellites more affordable, resulting in a dramatic increase in proposed systems requiring NOAA licenses.
NOAA is required to act on license applications within 120 days, but companies claim they’re seeing much longer wait times. “Some of NOAA’s licensing actions are months, if not years, over the 120-day determination timeline,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of House Science space subcommittee, at a Sept. 7 hearing. “Companies are applying and waiting without understanding as to why NOAA takes so long to get back to them.”
At one level, that looks like a problem that can be solved with more staff and funding, similar to the issues faced by the Federal Aviation Administration in licensing commercial launches. And, in fact, the White House did seek to roughly double the budget for NOAA’s Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs in its 2017 request, bumping it a little past $2 million.
Witnesses at that hearing, though, argued that the problems with licensing go beyond a lack of resources. They described licenses being denied or changed by NOAA with little explanation. Companies developing novel systems, like those providing infrared or hyperspectral imagery, are also running into long delays.
Industry believes those problems are rooted in national security reviews that often leave companies with little information about why their applications were rejected or their licenses modified. “The burden of proof should be on the government to say why not, and articulate that,” said Michele R. Weslander Quaid, a consultant who previously worked in industry and in the intelligence community. “We’re fighting ghosts.”
One approach to dealing with this problem — or, at the very least, confirming that it is a problem — is in a report NOAA is due to deliver to Congress in November on potential updates to commercial remote sensing law and regulations, a report mandated by last year’s Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. But Congress is concerned NOAA is delaying even that report.
Babin, at the hearing, noted that the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES), a federal advisory panel, hasn’t held a meeting in more than a year. That restricts its ability to provide input to the report, which is also required by last year’s law.
“This is unacceptable,” Babin said, accusing NOAA of “slow-rolling and obstructing” Congress and the administration. While NOAA was not invited to testify at the hearing, it announced the same day that ACCRES will hold a meeting Sept. 21, in part to discuss the report.
That friction between industry and regulators sounded familiar to other committee members. “It feels like we’re having this same discussion in the commercial spaceflight arena, how to balance government regulation and government participation with the interest of facilitating a robust industry,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.
But while the problems may be similar, the solutions will likely be different.