OSTP Recommends Giving Mission Approval Authority for FAA

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George Nield

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has recommended to Congress that the Secretary of Transportation be given the power to provide mission authorizations for such non-traditional space activities as asteroid mining and private space stations, a FAA official revealed last week.

George Nield, FAA associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, said an authorization would stipulate that a mission is in compliance with U.S. space policy, foreign and national security considerations, and international treaty obligations.

Nield made his remarks last week during a meeting of FAA AST’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).

The  government currently lacks a single authority with responsibility for mission approvals, Nield said.  The FAA licenses commercial launches and re-entries, the FCC licenses radio broadcasts, and NOAA oversees remote-sensing activities. While NASA and the Department of Defense are major players in space, they are not regulatory agencies.

The State Department has said the current regulatory framework makes it difficult to determine whether proposed activities comply with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, of which the U.S. is a signatory, Nield added.

The uncertainty has left companies pursuing private space stations, lunar bases, asteroid mining, and other non-traditional activities in limbo, he said. They can proceed with their efforts and raise money, but the lack of a clear regulatory process makes it more difficult.

Nield said the review and approval process would be modeled on the one the FAA uses to review payloads for launch license. The goal would be to avoid placing an undue burden on industry. The new process would not impact on any approval processes now used by FAA and NOAA.

OSTP submitted the recommendation to Congress on April 4. It came out a study required by the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that Congress passes last year, he added. Legislators instructed the FAA to review proposed space activities and make recommendations on how the government should handle approvals.

The commercial space act gave legal rights to companies that want to extract and use resources found on the moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies. During their meeting, COMSTAC members noted that the U.S. has been accused of violating the Outer Space Act by unilaterally writing these rights into law.

In response, COMSTAC members adopted a finding stating that Congress, the executive brand and industry carefully crafted the legislation to be in conformity with the Outer Space Treaty and to serve as a model for other nations to adapt.