In everything from military power to economic output, outer space capabilities are crucial for the United States. Though these capabilities have long been the domain of large government programs, commercial space companies are increasingly pushing progress. Unfortunately, these companies are hindered by cumbersome, confusing, and capricious governance practices. To ensure that America continues to be a leader in outer space, the U.S. government must reform how it oversees commercial outer space.
The first step of reform should involve a thorough review of the government’s organizational approach to space oversight authorities. Currently, the authorities for activities in space are housed in a range of agencies—each with a different perspective on commercial space. Depending on the satellite or equipment being launched, a commercial company can undergo reviews by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Commerce (DOC), the DOD, the State Department, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This hodgepodge of agencies can be confusing to navigate, especially for new entrants to the space market.
While the entire multi-agency process should be reviewed, there are direct steps that could be taken to improve individual aspects of government oversight. In the Department of Transportation (DOT), for example, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) should be elevated out of the FAA to its own bureau status. The current setup is coming under strain as the number of launches grows. A separate bureau would provide commercial space transportation a larger voice in the government—and in budget debates.
An independent bureau would also better represent the interests of the private space industry when it overlaps with other, more mature, industry issues. In the debate over closing national airspace for launches, for example, neither the office representing the space industry nor the one representing the airline industry should be subordinate to the other.
It’s also important to consider space situational awareness. As space becomes more crowded, it will be increasingly important to have a solid understanding of the objects in orbit.
Presently, however, U.S. space situational awareness is undertaken only by the U.S. Air Force. Congress is currently debating whether non-national security situational awareness should be turned over to the FAA. Giving space situational awareness to a civil agency would be beneficial, but Congress should go one step further.
A non-profit multi-stakeholder entity— through which government agencies, companies, and others can work together—is a far better solution to addressing the issue of space situational awareness. Space companies would have quicker access to needed information, and the government would not have to shoulder the costs of situational awareness.
The future success of American private space companies will rest on clear, coherent, and consistent oversight. Missions should be default-approved, with the burden of proof on the government to demonstrate why a particular initiative should not move forward. At present, with the number of agencies involved, it can often be unclear if a new mission will be approved. That will need to change if we are serious about opening space to commercial enterprise.
When national security concerns are in play, companies are often left uninformed about why a mission was denied in the review process—a process often seen as arbitrary. Within the remote imaging license process, for example, rejections or revocations of licenses are often done without an explanation. If this secretive approach becomes the norm for the space economy, space companies may be unable to raise financing. This can lead to companies that are initially interested in entering space markets to ultimately avoid doing so altogether. Certainty will be key to ensuring the space economy flourishes.
The United States has long been a leader in space exploration. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has new opportunities to expand that leadership. Commercial space launchers are slashing launch costs, and firms are imagining new ways of exploring and using the cosmos. Even the Department of Defense argues private innovation is needed to design future capabilities and get them into orbit. But only with an environment that allows commercial space to flourish will the United States continue to be on the vanguard of mankind’s advance among the stars.
Joshua Hampson is a security studies fellow at the Niskanen Center.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.