by Douglas Messier
The House Science Committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would transfer responsibility for space traffic management and situational awareness from the Defense Department to the Commerce Department over the objections of Democrats who said the measure rubber stamped a half-baked Trump Administration plan.
“This bill is an important step to secure the United States as the leader in space traffic management and improves the safety of all space operations,” Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in a statement. “The number of commercial satellites in space are predicted to grow from 1,300 active satellites today to more than 10,000 in the next few years. Now is the time to solidify the role of the Department of Commerce in the development of space traffic standards and guidelines.”
The American Space Situational Awareness and Framework for Entity Management Act (American Space SAFE Management Act) is in line with Space Policy Directive 3, which President Donald Trump signed earlier this month. The program’s main goal is to prevent satellites from colliding with orbital debris and each other.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, said she does not believe Commerce is the proper agency to oversee these areas. She noted the Obama Administration had began planning to move these responsibilities to the Department of Transportation, which currently licenses rocket launches and re-entries and issues experimental permits for space vehicles.
“Then the Trump Administration came in and decided it wanted to move this function to the Department of Commerce instead,” Johnson said in a prepared statement. “This is in spite of the fact that Commerce has no existing infrastructure or expertise to support this important work. In fact, no credible reason has been articulated for why the Commerce Department is the best place to house this function.
“The only discernible motivation for reversing course is that they just didn’t want to endorse something Obama started. That is a no way to govern, but it wouldn’t be the first time this Administration has acted that way,” she added.
The committee defeated an amendment Johnson offered that would have put the transfer of responsibilities on hold. Instead, NASA would have commissioned the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct a study of which agency would be best equipped to handle space traffic management and situational awareness.
The legislation gives the Commerce and Defense departments six months to submit a plan to Congress outlining how the transition of responsibilities will take place.
“The Transition Plan shall identify the capabilities the Department of Commerce will require to carry out the space situational awareness responsibilities, including workforce, facilities, and training; the cost of those capabilities; and the estimated date when those capabilities will be in place,” the bill stated. “In addition, the Transition Plan shall describe how the Department of Commerce will structure any partnerships with commercial and international entities.”
The Commerce Department would publish a set of voluntary civil space traffic coordination guidelines within a year that would be developed in consultation with other federal agencies and private entities. A public comment period would follow.
The legislation authorizes the Commerce Department to spend $20 million annually on space traffic management for fiscal years 2019 through 2023.
The department would create a data testbed “to facilitate innovation in the use of space situational awareness data to support space situational awareness services that may be provided by the Federal Government or the private sector.”
The department would establish a civil space traffic coordination pilot program within 18 months. The five-year pilot program would be funded at $5 million per year beginning in FY 2019.
The goal of the program would be “to facilitate communication, coordination, negotiation, and resolution among domestic and international civil spacecraft operators (including governmental and private entities operating such spacecraft) for the purposes of improving the safety of spaceflight,” the bill stated.
“The Secretary shall, to the greatest extent practicable, incentivize participation in the pilot program. Nothing in the preceding sentence shall be construed as requiring a private entity to participate in such pilot program,” the measure added.
The Commerce Department would charge no user fees for a basic set of services and information. However, it would be able to charge reasonable user fees for any additional services and information.
The measure does not prohibit private companies from charging user fees to customers for providing data. It also encourages the Commerce Department to “facilitate and promote opportunities for United States private sector providers of space situational awareness data, information, and services to participate in and contribute to the Program.”
The legislation assigns NASA responsibility for research and development (R&D) in civil space situational awareness and space traffic management. The space agency would have 180-days to present a plan to Congress to:
- improve coordination among agencies on space situational awareness and space traffic management R&D;
- promote and facilitate private investment in R&D;
- identify current and project future private investment;
- work with private sector to avoid competing with the private sector; and,
- prioritize federal investments in these areas over the next five years.
NASA is also assigned the task of establishing a Center for Civil Space Situational Awareness and Space Traffic Management Science and Technology Excellence at an academic institution or other organization.
The center would “develop, lead, and promote research that furthers civil space situational awareness, space traffic coordination, and space traffic management,” the bill states. NASA would spend $2 million per year on the center from FY 2019 through FY 2023.