Biden budget prioritizes space sector
Policy continuity across administrations is rare. But in a relatively small corner of the federal government, efforts are underway within the Department of Commerce to build upon a foundational 2018 National Space Council initiative.
In March, the Biden administration proposed a budget of $87.7 million for the Department of Commerce’s (DOC) Office of Space Commerce — $77.7 million above the fiscal year 2021 enacted level. This sizable increase is specifically slated to accelerate development and eventual deployment of a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capability. Back in 2018, Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3) formalized the transition of SSA functions from the Department of Defense (DOD) Space Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron to the DOC. Implementation was slow, until now.
At the core of this budget increase is funding for a program known as the Open Architecture Data Depository (OADR) which will develop and deploy a space tracking system so companies and governments can share a single operational picture, in order to avoid collisions. After 65 years of spaceflight, low-Earth orbit (LEO) is littered with a half a million fragments of old rockets and satellites circling our planet that are larger than 1 centimeter in size, which can cause critical, if not catastrophic, damage upon impact.
While the issue is hardly new, little to date has been done globally to address the growing problem of space pollution. But it is not merely the challenge of avoiding existing space junk, it is also the problem of monitoring ongoing impacts between derelict objects that propagate more debris with each successive collision.
One thing is abundantly clear: Continued access to a benign space operating domain is essential for every citizen, country and company. The numbers reflect that. As of 2022, there are approximately 6,100 active satellites in orbit, but that number is expected to rise to 57,000 by 2030. To ensure safety of operations, information sharing along with transparency are needed to reduce the probability of collisions. Without this, the cost to operate orbital systems will increase ultimately impacting all users of space communications and data.
As articulated by Steve Volz, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assistant administrator for satellite and information services and acting assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction, the OADR will benefit from continuous collaboration with commercial partners. Currently, DOC is in the early stages of the development of the OADR. According to SPD-3, OADR must be able to incorporate data from a variety of government and commercial sources and integrate these data into a single coherent picture to allow users to understand and manage risks for space operations. Volz has stated the goal of procuring data from commercial vendors in the coming fiscal year with initial operating capability for a cloud-based repository targeted for fiscal year 2024.
Key questions remain as to the degree to which the OADR will make use of data provided by commercial SSA companies, as well as the ultimate capability of a government-provided space picture, which is free to users, versus that of a higher-quality tracking system that would come with costs to users. As DOC builds the program, there are tremendous opportunities for the federal government to leverage technology solutions already in the market.
The envisioned OADR capability to provide space tracking capabilities in collaboration with the commercial sector is the first step to a mature orbital operating environment. Soon to follow, rules of the road will be necessary to manage space traffic. No different than the maritime domain, not every vessel is the same and norms of behavior must govern safety of operations by establishing agreed upon rights of way.
Many details remain on how the OADR program will evolve and integrate commercial best practices, but it is clear the Biden administration is committed to the growth of the space economy. While the program is modest by any federal agency scale, the payoff will be enormous. Without the ability to accurately track all orbital objects below 600 kilometers that could threaten human spacecraft including: the International Space Station and planned commercial habitations as well as communication, remote sensing satellites and even pathways to geostationary orbit, virtually none of the expectations of the growth of the space economy will come to pass.
As the leading spacefaring nation with the greatest to gain from a robust space sector, funding the OADR should be an easy decision for Congress.
Christian Zur and Scott Kordella are members of the Commercial Space Initiative (CSI), a non-profit organization dedicated to predictable and sustainable uses of outer space.