WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris today announced a new interagency effort to build a national governance structure to promote and ensure the safety of new types of space activities – such as satellite repair, stations orbital resupply stations and for operations in the vast expanses of space in cislunar space between the Earth’s outer orbit and that of the Moon.
“We will do this work to ensure that our nation remains a model for the responsible use of space,” Harris said in a speech during a visit to the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, Calif., noting that the United States “must write new rules to provide the clarity” that government and industry need for 21st century space operations.
“We need to think about where we are and where we need to go,” she said. “The opportunity of space must guide our work in the 21st century. to do this, we need to deepen our partnerships with the private sector.
Harris met with industry representatives during a visit to the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, Calif., to discuss what commercial space operators believe they need to grow America’s already booming space economy in offering new capabilities in orbit.
She also announced that the second meeting of the National Space Council, which she chairs, will be held on September 9.
The Trump administration in 2020 launched a National In-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) initiative, fostering the exchange of information between government agencies, industry, and academia. This initiative was led by NASA, which wants to use OSAM technologies for its lunar exploration efforts, and the DoD was a participant.
While NASA may lead the national initiative, the Pentagon has its own space services projects, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, with prime contractor Northrop Grumman’s Space Logistics planning a launch in 2024. Meanwhile, the Defense Innovation Unit is exploring satellite refueling, using “refueling stations” stationed in geosynchronous orbit, with a demonstration flight planned for late 2024 or early 2025.
The new White House initiative is a follow-on effort, aimed at fleshing out national rules, and possibly future regulations, for “non-traditional” space activities that today fall between jurisdictional cracks or are simply not not covered under current law, according to an involved US government source.
Another focus of the Biden administration’s effort is to address governance issues to shape future global norms and rules, including for military activities — ahead of China, which also seeks to be a leader in the way humanity extends its reach to the stars.
Pioneering companies like Space Logistics (formerly Orbital ATK) and the U.S. arm of Japanese start-up Astroscale, which are developing in-orbit maintenance and debris removal capabilities, have been frustrated with the current licensing limbo, said industry sources at Breaking Defense. Thus, American companies have campaigned for clarity on regulatory guardrails for peak operations – including in-orbit refueling, active debris removal, in-orbit manufacturing, space tourism and mining. resources such as minerals from the Moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies.
At the same time, the industry has not been unified in its demands; nor do they agree on which agencies should be responsible for any new surveillance activity. Ditto for Congress, which itself has jurisdictional issues because different committees oversee different government agencies with their fingers in the space regulation pie.
The Trump administration’s 2019 Space Policy Directive 2 (SPD-2) laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Commerce Department as the primary oversight agency for U.S. commercial space activities, including new activities such as than maintenance of satellites. But Congress has never officially authorized Commerce or any other agency to begin monitoring unregulated in-orbit operations.
And in a bit of deja vu, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rushed into regulatory limbo last week, jumping the gun on the National Space Council’s disclosure of its interagency effort. The FCC announced Aug. 5 that it had voted to open a new “procedure” on “Innovation and Transformation of the Space Economy.” This effort focuses on servicing the satellites as well as assembly and manufacturing in space.
Such a “procedure” could lead to new regulations affecting most satellite operators, given that the FCC authorizes access to the radio frequency spectrum used by just about every satellite.
“We believe the new space age needs new rules. Because here on the ground, the regulatory frameworks that we rely on to shape space policy were largely built for another era,” said the FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel in a press release accompanying the vote.
It’s important to remember that while Rosenworcel joined Harris at the Oakland meeting today, the FCC is by law an independent entity that does not answer to the White House.
As a first step, the FCC issued a “Notice of Investigation” that “will examine the opportunities and challenges of space missions such as refueling satellites, inspecting and repairing spacecraft in orbit, capturing and the removal of debris and the transformation of materials by manufacturing in space”. .”
Rosenworcel pointed out that the new review follows another FCC decision last week to “release more spectrum in the 17 GHz band to meet growing demand for space services.” She further noted that the FCC has increased the size of the satellite division of the International Bureau which is responsible for licensing in order to “keep up with all of this.”
The FCC’s decision to adopt potential regulation of non-traditional space operations recalls its 2018 decision to embark on the interagency debate on revising space debris mitigation requirements for satellite operators. The move sparked an interagency ruckus as it anticipated revisions to government debris standards — which apply to DoD space operations as well as those of civilian agencies — mandated by the Trump administration to be directed by the department. of Commerce and NASA.
Several government and industry officials argue that this latest FCC regulatory foray is another indication that the commission is trying to “extend” its legal mandate, perhaps beyond the limits of its actual authorities. But a more charitable interpretation put forward by some is that the FCC is genuinely concerned about getting the ball rolling, and therefore primes the pump by launching a very public debate.
One difference between now and then is that the FCC last May signed an information-sharing agreement with the National Telecommunications and Information Commerce Administration (NTIA) – the executive agency responsible for coordinating the inter-agency telecommunications and information policy. The agreement, according to an industry source, could help guard against future disputes.