Change Language: Make FAA/AST the “FAA for Space”

The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) represents a tremendous achievement for American space leadership. This legislation will enable the continued growth of the commercial space sector by allowing innovation and expanded access to space, making this a truly exciting time for commercial space.

Worryingly, a 2013 study by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee determined that even if nothing new is launched, debris in orbit will continue to grow due to collisions, each creating more debris and resulting in more collisions. However, launches will continue with increasing frequency. Satellites will require shielding and heavier launch solutions. Firms will need replacements, more robust architectures, and pricier insurance. These costs will limit our ability to maximize the utility of commercial space.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine. Credit: Corey Lack Pictures

Rep. Jim Bridenstine. Credit: Corey Lack Pictures

Legal and regulatory issues also need to be addressed. According to the Outer Space Treaty, the U.S. is responsible for its commercial activities in space, putting taxpayers at risk. As such, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) licenses launch and reentry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides licenses for remote sensing satellites. The Federal Communications Commission does the same for communication satellites. The Department of Defense maintains space situational awareness (SSA) and reports conjunction analyses to operators. None of these agencies have the authority to compel a commercial operator to maneuver. None can require an operator to maintain a transponder or propulsion for maneuvers. None have oversight of commercial space habitats, space resource extraction, co-orbital satellite servicing, or other non-traditional space activities. In short, the government has no authority to provide necessary space traffic management in an increasingly congested environment. Furthermore, there is a lack of consensus as to whether current laws and regulations sufficiently fulfill our obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.

The absence of appropriate regulation will result in de facto regulation by increasing costs and thwarting access. Responsible leadership can mitigate these challenges.

Currently, the DoD, through the Joint Space Operations Center ( JSpOC), maintains SSA as a byproduct of its mission to protect national security assets, and provides this service for free to foreign governments and the commercial sector. This was appropriate in times past. However, this burden has begun to distract from the JSpOC’s core mission at a time when space is becoming increasingly contested. The DoD needs to use its resources to win wars, and I have heard repeatedly that they do not want to be the “FAA for Space.”

A civil agency can fulfill this capacity. I propose that FAA/AST would be appropriate. The following actions should be taken:

Create a conjunction analysis and warning center that fuses unclassified data from DoD, international, and commercial sensors, and data emitted from satellites. This center should be commercialized and subject to the FAA/AST’s oversight.

Designate FAA/AST as the lead agency for space traffic management, complete with authority to compel maneuvers.

Create a mission authorization or license for activities not covered by the FCC or NOAA. Eventually make FAA/AST the sole mission authorizer.
The CSLCA calls for reports on these topics, due by November. In the meantime, we must not let momentum established by the CLCSA dissipate. We need to explore practical solutions acceptable to the space community so Congress can be ready to implement and incorporate them with the results of these reports. I do not contend that I have the final solution, which is why we need this dialogue.

We must begin now. I am certain we must act with urgency to enable the DoD to focus on fighting and winning wars, satisfy our international obligations, and ensure the preservation of space for generations to come.

Bridenstine (R-Okla.) is a member of the Science, Space and Technology and Armed Services committees.