An unlikely champion’s ‘holistic’ prescription for American’s space policy ills

A sweeping space policy bill introduced April 12 seeks to update a wide range of civil, commercial and national security space issues to keep the United States competitive.

U.S. Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.) introduced the American Space Renaissance Act in a speech at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, arguing that the bill’s updates to national space policy are critical in a changing environment that threatens the country’s economic and military security.

“Friends, this is our Sputnik moment,” he said in his speech. “America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation. That’s why I believe it’s time for the American Space Renaissance Act.”

The bill includes separate sections covering military, civil and commercial policy topics, from changes to responsibilities for space situational awareness to giving the NASA administrator a fixed five-year term. “This is a comprehensive bill, because ensuring that America is the preeminent spacefaring nation requires a holistic approach to entire American space enterprise.”

Bridenstine acknowledged that he does not expect the bill to pass in its current form. “This bill will serve as a repository for the best space reform ideas,” he said. “Many of its policies can be inserted into other bills that will pass.”

Bridenstine discussed this “holistic” approach to the bill in an in-depth interview with SpaceNews ahead of the Space Symposium:

“It seems like within the national space enterprise, there is a Department of Defense space enterprise, a commercial space enterprise, a civil space enterprise. There doesn’t seem to be one national space enterprise. What we’re trying to do is to bring a lot of elements together and make sure that in the end, the technologies being advanced are relevant to all the different enterprises that exist. That’s the goal of this.”

Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.) formally introduced the American Space Renaissance Act during the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Credit: Tom Kimmell

Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.) formally introduced the American Space Renaissance Act during the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Credit: Tom Kimmell

MilSatCom

Bridenstine has become one of the House’s most engaged members on military satellite communications issues and the bill includes a ful l section on that topic, including eight provisions that he hopes will appear in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017.

“We are continuing to champion protected tactical waveform and multiband terminals on all the military technologies and military assets. We believe strongly in a satellite communications pilot program that can be used to establish innovative new ways of procuring capacity and throughput. We want to make sure the pathfinder programs are fully funded and that the Wideband Analysis of Alternatives for [DoD] is going to take into account what we learn from those pathfinders.”

SSA

Bridenstine has also been a vocal proponent for moving some space situational awareness tasks away from DoD and to the Federal Aviation Administration. His bill would authorize the Transportation Secretary to gather the necessary SSA data to distribute to government and commercial partners.

“The DoD will always be involved in space situational awareness. But when it comes to conjunction analysis and reporting to foreign partners, there’s a lot of support, not only within the DoD, but also within Congress, for making sure [DoD] is not being artificially bogged down doing missions they’re not designed to do. Those are the kinds of things that should be done by a civil agency and a lot of it can be commercialized.”

Small Launchers

Bridenstine also wants the Pentagon to take a page out of NASA’s playbook and fund launches for a booming small satellite market. The Space Renaissance Act would authorize $27 million for a new venture-class launch program to competitively award at least four contracts

“When you look at the future architectures [DoD] is going to be taking advantage of, we want to make sure those capabilities are not only developed here in the United States but that they’re launched in the United States. A lot of those sensors are going to be shoeboxsized or microwaved-sized. Those venture-class launch capabilities are perfectly suited for those kinds of satellites.”

Asked about civil and commercial provisions that have a chance of being enacted this year, Bridenstine instead discussed related efforts outside of the bill to fund FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and support commercial weather data purchases at the NOAA:

“We’re going to make every effort to make sure the [FAA] Office of Commercial Space Transportation is fully funded, per the president’s budget request, which historically has not happened. We’re going to make that an effort this year. I think that’s very possible.

“NOAA is making advancements with their commercial space policy. They’re going to be producing basically the standards document so that commercial data can be fed into the numerical models for NOAA. I think we could see funding for that in the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill. That funding will continue to grow because of the need for more data and better data.”

Term Appointment

One provision in the civil space section of the bill is modeled on the Space Leadership Preservation Act, a bill introduced by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) that would establish a NASA board of directors and give the administrator a 10-year term. Bridenstine’s bill includes a similar provision, but with a five-year term:

“We looked at the various ideas that had been proposed in the past to bring stability to NASA’s leadership and to NASA’s funding. And when we looked across all the best research that had been done in this area, the place we landed was the ‘pioneering doctrine’ that was put forth by the Space Foundation. I think Chairman Culberson had some great ideas, too, and I’m not opposed to his bill. I’m a co-sponsor of it. But committing a NASA administrator to a 10-year term is going to scare away some candidates.”

Bridenstine said his goal is not to get the bill passed intact, or even line up co-sponsors, but instead use it to start discussions on space policy issues and identify sections that can be added to other bills.

“The goal is to generate interest, start a conversation, and, where we can build consensus, take different parts of the bill and insert it into other pieces of legislation that we know are going to pass. That’s the strategy.”