By Douglas Messier
Rep. Jim Bridenstine’s (R-OK) proposed American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) would bring about significant changes in the nation’s commercial space policy, with a much larger role for the Department of Transportation and a revamping of activities within the Commerce Department.
The DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) would see its budget more than quintuple within five years to keep up with growth in the commercial space industry.
DOT would also take over responsibility for tracking objects in space and preventing orbital collisions from the U.S. Air Force. It would also revamp its procedures to approve non-traditional commercial space missions such as private space stations, moon bases and asteroid mining.
Bridenstine’s measure seeks to enhance the nation’s forecasting capabilities by having the Commerce Department’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) incorporate data from commercial weather providers.
The measure would streamline the application process for commercial remote sensing licenses and make the process more transparent. It also seeks to incorporate commercial remote sensing data into the nation’s Earth Science programs.
The bill includes provisions aimed at making American industry more competitive, including a loan guarantee program, tax credits for the domestic launch industry and start-up companies that give stock options, and funding for a variety of prizes.
Bridenstine has said he does not expect the measure, which includes extensive changes to military and civilian space policy, to pass as a whole. Instead, provisions would be incorporated into other legislative measures. Some of that work has already begun.
FAA AST’s Expanded Role
The Obama Administration has requested $19.8 million for FAA AST’s baseline FY 2017 budget, with an additional $2.5 million for safety research and $2 million for integration into the National Air Space in other parts of the agency’s budget.
Bridenstine’s measure would double FAA AST’s budget immediately, with additional increases in the years that followed.
FY 2017: $43.1 million
FY 2018: $55.5 million
FY 2019: $66 million
FY 2020: $80.5 million
FY 2021: $99 million.
The bill raise the status of the office by creating the position of assistance secretary for Commercial Space Transportation. Currently, George Nield is associate administrator of FAA AST, which is a lower position within DOT.
“Given the importance of commercial space transportation, the Associate Administrator of FAA/AST must at the table when national transportation issues are discussed at the highest level,” according to the ASRA website.
The measure seeks to clarify the regulatory environment for non-traditional activities such as private space stations, commercial moon bases, asteroid mining and on-orbit satellite servicing.
“Without clarifying the regulatory environment, these ventures could be at risk,” the website states. “At present, the State Department, as part of the inter-agency process which examines payloads, does not believe it has the mechanism to ensure non-traditional activities of commercial space companies are in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty. This uncertainty limits capital formation and innovation.”
The bill expresses a sense of Congress that DOT should have the authority to determine compliance with the Outer Space Treaty. It directs FAA AST to broaden its payload review process to include new types of missions.
Work in this area is already underway. Last month, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recommended to Congress that DOT be given the authority to grant mission authorizations for non-traditional space projects, Nield said.
FAA AST would also be given the power to allow companies to use experimental aircraft for spaceflight training on a commercial basis, something the industry has sought for a number of years.
Office of Spaceports
The measure would establish an office of spaceports to oversee the nation’s growing number of licensed launch sites.
The office would administer a space transportation infrastructure matching grants program to improve spaceports. One-half of 1 percent in the DOT’s Airport and Airway Trust Fund would be set aside for project grants.
Bridenstine’s bill would require separate studies by DOT and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). DOT’s study would focus on launch demand and the capacity of spaceports to handle the demand. The GAO would examine spaceport activities and various funding options for support them.
FAA AST would be required to update regulations to “keep pace with capabilities and technological change” and “provide this industry with minimal regulatory burden.” Regulations would be reviewed within one year of the passage of the act, and updated every three years after that time.
The office would also expand the metrics it uses to measure its workload beyond the number of launch licenses its issues each year. The additional metrics would include “pre-application discussions with industry, launch and reentry licenses, launch site operators’ licenses, experimental permits, safety approvals, payload reviews, and spaceport environmental reviews.”
The law would prohibit commercial space launch vehicles and missions from being subjected to regulations governing non-space vehicles.
“Unfortunately, the International Civil Aviation Organization recently stated its intention to begin crafting guidelines for ‘space tourism,’” the ASRA website states. ”This is unacceptable, and cannot be allowed to happen in the United States. Space transportation needs to be recognized as an equal user of the air space, rather than a subordinate.”
Another provision would streamline the process for obtaining electromagnetic spectrum by launch providers.
Launch providers would be required to obtain insurance for any damage caused to state and local government property. At present, the requirement is limited to insuring against losses to federal property.
The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is currently studying whether to lift the ban on the launch of American satellites aboard Indian rockets. Currently, satellite launches on these boosters require waivers from the U.S. government.
Under Bridenstine’s bill, the GAO would be required to conduct a study on how lifting the ban would affect the domestic launch industry before USTR took any action. A 30-day public comment period would be required if USTR decided to proceed with lifting the restriction.
Space Situational Awareness & Traffic Management
Bridenstine’s bill would shift responsibility for tracking objects in orbit and preventing orbital collisions from the U.S. Air Force to the Department of Transportation.
Last week, Nield said a DOT review has found that it would be possible for the department to take over these responsibilities. The Air Force supports the move, saying it would free the service to focus on national security matters.
Nield said implementation would likely start with a small pilot program that would examine how the transition could be best accomplished. The Air Force would continue to operate radars and telescopes that track space objects; it would feed the information to FAA for analysis.
A space awareness advisory committee composed of government, commercial, academic and international experts would be established to advice the department. DOT would be directed to use private sector resources to the extent possible.
Space traffic management goes beyond simply tracking objects and avoiding collisions. The bill describes space management as “a set of technical and regulatory provisions and processes used to oversee, coordinate, regulate, and promote safe and responsible space activities.”
The measure would require that a lead government agency be designated to handle space traffic management by Sept. 30, 2020. The agency would be tasked with formulating regulations to avoid collisions in orbit, seeking bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements with other nations, and developing a unified, global space traffic management architecture.
Commerce Department Changes
The measure would require the Secretary of Commerce to conduct a review of whether his department’s space-related activities should be reorganized. Commerce has the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office, and the Office of Space Commerce.
Bridenstine’s bill would require NOAA to make use of data from the emerging commercial space weather industry in forecasting. NOAA is launching a $3 million pilot program to evaluate the utility of commercial weather data this year.
NOAA’s budget for commercial data buys would be significantly increased over the next five years:
FY 2017: $15 million
FY 2018: $30 million
FY 2019: $55 million
FY 2020: $90 million
FY 2021: $130 million
NOAA would formulate rules on the treatment of commercial weather data to prevent the release of proprietary data.
Remote Sensing Data Policies
The bill would streamline the process for granting commercial remote sensing licenses. Regulators would be given 60 days instead of the current 120 days to approve or deny an application, with automatic approval if no decision is reached within this period.
When licenses are denied, the remote sensing office would be required to provide a reason for the decision. Retroactive changes in existing licenses would be limited to national security reasons. Companies would be compensated for any losses resulting from retroactive changes.
The measure would streamline license approvals for foreign countries that down link raw data from private American remote sensing systems. The Commerce Department would be required to keep an updated list of countries that are eligible for expedited license licenses.
The department would also be required to create categories of remote sensing licenses that take into account national security concerns.
In a related provision, NASA would be required to perform a study on how commercial remote sensing data could be incorporated into the nation’s Earth Science effort.
The proposed bill also includes a number of provisions designed to improve American space competitiveness. These changes include:
- Domestic Space Industry Loan Guarantee Program – The Commerce Department would establish a loan guarantee program to support the industrial base for national security.
- Domestic Launch Payload Tax Credit – The credit would be equal to 10 percent of the insured value of a payload if it is launched by a domestic launch provider.
- Deferred Employee Tax Liability on Stock Options – Defers employee tax liability on stock or option compensation.
- Prize Account – A prize account would be established for activities such as: lunar, asteroid, and Mars missions; orbital debris clean up; and point to point flights on Earth.
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