Space transitions aren’t just about NASA anymore

While NASA and the Air Force still dominate federal spending on space activities, the growing importance of public-private partnerships and the explosion of business-to-business space commerce are creating an outsized role for the small regulatory and promotional agencies inside the Departments of Transportation and Commerce.

While U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will likely submit his proposed cabinet-level secretaries of those departments within a few weeks, the question is whether those secretaries and their early hires as undersecretaries and Schedule C positions will even know that among their statutory responsibilities is licensing and promoting vital segments of the U.S. commercial space industry. And that those responsibilities are carried out by civil servants (frequently on an acting basis in commerce’s case) buried several layers inside one of the many agencies under their jurisdiction.

That suggests that America’s national security reliance on commercial space communications, overhead imagery, and launch services — plus our civilian exploration and scientific missions in space — are all further dependent on three tiny offices inside Commerce and Transportation, plus the Satellite Division of the International Bureau of the independent Federal Communications Commission. So getting value for the taxpayer from over $40 billion in federal space investments depends in part on the effectiveness and productivity of less than $30 million to $40 million in regulatory and promotional offices.

Of course, the global commercial space marketplace is nearly 10 times larger than U.S. government space spending. Presumably, ensuring U.S. commercial providers have a streamlined path to compete for a share of $400 billion is  of some economic relevance to the nation… and even  minor political considerations like job creation.

Among these critical small offices, perhaps best known is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. FAA/AST has seen a marked growth in budget and staffing as well as extraordinary public discussion of expanded authority in recent years. That’s partly driven by increasing launch activity, including SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and soon many others winning back launch market and resuplying the International Space Station. But it is also a reflection of both new space applications (satellite servicing, on-orbit manufacturing) and new approaches to existing applications (remote sensing and big LEO internet constellations) that are collectively enabled by cheaper and more plentiful launch capabilities.

While AST’s total resources have increased (to nearly $25 million in the 2017 budget), so has its workload, with much more ahead of them. AST’s launch regulations, for example, reflect primarily the ICBM-heritage expendable launch vehicles of the 1990s. As U.S. commercial launch rates increase from a dozen or so a year to a hundred and more, many carrying not one but perhaps dozens of payloads, the current licensing process will grind to a halt. Old process-based rules will need to be replaced with streamlined performance-based ones, and that will require an increase in both technical and legal expertise at AST to understand the latest technologies and operational realities of industry.

But the reality is that AST, which rests uneasily next to the leviathan air safety, air traffic, and airports offices inside the FAA, isn’t in a position to control its own destiny. So it will be critical that the new Secretary of Transportation vest some of his or her political capital in AST, perhaps dual-hatting the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation as an Assistant Secretary of Transportation. Ideally, it will mean restoring AST as a direct report to the Secretary, eventually as its own modal agency.

The Commerce Secretary’s role in commercial space is no less critical, but is much less visible, focused or funded than Transportation’s. The Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs, which oversees space-based collection of geospatial data under a law and regulations codified at the tail end of the Cold War, has about four people and no permanent director to process a flood of applications for remote sensing constellations. The Office of Space Commerce, whose roots go back to the Reagan administration, has languished without a director for over eight years.  Yet it has the job of hosting the government’s Space-Based Position, Navigation and Timing National Executive Committee, as well as promotion of remote sensing and other issues. Additionally, there are some heroic individuals that serve in export promotion and export control agencies within Commerce.

Both of these offices, though, are buried within NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. That’s right, the organizations responsible for promoting and regulating commercial remote sensing are beholden to the organization that buys and operates its own environmental satellites and gives away the data.

Fortunately, in its last budget proposal the Obama administration finally increased the funding for both of these offices … to a whopping $2 million each. So once an omnibus appropriation is passed next spring, the new Secretary of Commerce will be able to combine them together, and move them up to at least the office of the Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, and charter them with leading an aggressive department-wide space business promotion agenda.

The Trump administration should model its organization of space policy on lessons from the Reagan and first Bush administrations. Commerce and Transportation need to play a revitalized role, as they did in the 1980s and 1990s, in influencing space launch, human spaceflight, and remote sensing policies — sometimes over the objections of NASA or the Department of Defense. And restoring the National Space Council, which Vice President-elect Mike Pence committed to when he spoke at a space coast rally in Floriday a few weeks ago, will help harness all U.S. space agencies (and their investments), large and small, to pursue our national space agenda.

Jim Muncy is a former congressional staffer and principal of PoliSpace, an Alexandria, Virginia-based space-policy consultancy.