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Increasing the visibility of the Commercial Space Transportation Office

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In the almost 60 years since the dawn of the space age, America’s sense of curiosity, innovation, and technological drive have transformed our way of life. In recent decades, we owe a lot of that transformation to the commercial space industry. Space, once the sole purview of governments, has increasingly become democratized by private companies pushing the envelope on the possible. To date, the industry has been providing capabilities such as launch, imaging, and communications to customers both governmental and private. But now we stand on the cusp of expanded activity, with American companies seeking to create habitable modules, service satellites in orbit, carry out missions to the Moon and Mars, make space accessible to the masses, and even mine asteroids. These ambitions will help ensure America’s preeminence in space; however, the government must be an enabler, not a hindrance. In order for its potential to be realized, commercial space transportation needs increased visibility and focus within the government.

The case for space goes beyond satisfying our innate human curiosity, as it affects all of us here on Earth. Pushing the bounds on space requires investments in science, technology, engineering, and math education. In turn, we have a more technologically trained workforce. According to the Space Foundation’s 2016 Space Report, the space sector creates high-paying jobs, boasting an annual average salary of $111,000 in 2014. Similarly, in 2015, commercial space products and services accounted for $126.33 billion in spending. Furthermore, advances in space technology often transfer into commercial products, helping everyone.

{mosads}In 1984, forward leaning policy makers recognized the potential of these contributions as a complement to the government’s efforts in space. To ensure the industry was reliably and predictably regulated in order to promote regular commercial launches as well as ensure our international obligations were met, the Commercial Space Launch Act was passed. This established the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and was given a legal mandate to:

  • Regulate the U.S. commercial space transportation industry, to ensure compliance with international obligations of the United States, and to protect the public health and safety, safety of property, and national security and foreign policy interests of the United States;
  • Encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space launches and reentries by the private sector;
  • Recommend appropriate changes in Federal statutes, treaties, regulations, policies, plans, and procedures; and
  • Facilitate the strengthening and expansion of the United States space transportation infrastructure.

Originally located in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, AST was transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in November of 1995 as part of the Clinton administration’s government-wide reorganization effort.

In the intervening decades, commercial space activity has greatly expanded, placing an ever-increasing burden on AST. Since Fiscal Year 2006, launch and reentry operations have increased by over 200 percent and the number of authorizations issued by AST have increased nearly 500 percent, while staffing levels have not even grown 50 percent. Currently, the office is engaged in 74 total active projects, up from 38 in 2015.

Clearly the demands on this office are increasing and, as many commercial space companies will tell you, they are struggling to keep up. We are also concerned with the status of the regulations governing this industry and overseen by FAA/AST. Much of the rulemaking does not keep pace with technological innovation nor the demand for commercial launch. Operating based on outdated regulations is a time-consuming burden for both this office and industry. As one of the FAA’s four lines of business, AST has struggled to acquire adequate funding or receive the proper attention to regulatory and interagency issues plaguing the office.

While in 1995 it may have been useful for AST to be closely linked with the FAA, we question whether that is still true. There rightly is a need for the space community to work with the aviation community on shared airspace issues, often an argument for AST’s placement in the FAA, but these issues could be worked on within the Department of Transportation as a whole. Re-elevating AST to the Office of the Secretary of Transportation would automatically give commercial space issues more visibility and grant the office a bigger platform to advocate for good policy. Moving AST back to the secretariat level would also signal a renewed sense of importance from the government. It would indicate that we are taking steps to improve this industry’s interactions with the government.

We recognize that moving the office would come with its own set of challenges. For instance, on a purely logistical level, AST currently utilizes shared functions of the FAA, such as administrative, legal, and facilities. These and other challenges of creating a new office in the Department of Transportation would require a well-planned transition period, but it would ultimately be worthwhile.

On March 13, 2017, the president signed an executive order requiring the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to develop a comprehensive executive branch reorganization plan. The possible relocation of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation should be given serious consideration in this plan.

Space ventures have transformed the human condition and are poised to continue changing the world for the better. If America wants to lead in exploring the solar system and beyond, we need to prioritize supporting our commercial sector. We have a unique opportunity to position this industry to do even greater things moving forward. We should not hesitate to take action.

Kilmer represents Washington’s 6th District and is a member of the Appropriations Committee. Bridenstine represents Oklahoma’s 1st District and is a member of the House Science Committee.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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