February 16, 2017

Reforming Space Oversight

According to Politico, the Trump Administration is eyeing some big changes in outer space policy. The White House wants America’s space program to be less risk-averse and more reliant on commercial capabilities. Low-earth orbit could be mostly turned over to private actors, private space stations could be launched, and private American astronauts could be heading towards the moon on private spaceships. The planned space program evokes exciting images of a new era of space use and exploration. While it is good that the Administration is looking to promote commercial space, it may need to start by focusing closer to Earth.

The commercial space sector is growing rapidly, and seems poised to expand even faster in the near future. While nothing is inevitable, a new wave of demand-driven launch providers are driving down the costs to access space. Technological innovations spun in from other industries—such as information technology—have made smaller satellites more versatile in their capabilities.

The commercial sector is “pulling away” from government investment, showcasing the positive nature of market disruptions in an industry that has long been dominated by large nation states and government contractors. This disruptive trend has been described as New Space (emerging entrant launch and space service providers), as opposed to Old Space (traditional government contractors), and shows no sign of subsiding. In 2013, the private space sector and its supporting industries accounted for 76 percent of global space spending. By 2024, that percentage could rise to 86 percent. While much of the global commercial space industry is based in the United States, other countries, such as Luxembourg, are building out their own markets.

Some of the debate about space policy focuses on the competition between the “old” and the “new” and how the government should engage with both sides. However, as the U.S. government becomes a less dominant investor in the commercial space market, the longer-term viability of this still nascent sector will increasingly rely on commercial demand. That demand will be determined, in part, by the restrictions the government places on it.

These restrictions can be broken into two aspects: (1) the actual regulations and rules and (2) the process by which they are enforced. For the health of the commercial space sector, both of these issues need to be addressed.

Regulatory Reform

Current regulations have not necessarily kept up with rapidly changing space capabilities. Take remote sensing, for example. The regulations in place have caused the United States to lose market share in commercial remote imaging to Europe and Canada. The regulations, designed for an era of small constellations with complex and expensive satellites, have also not kept pace with the realities of a quickly evolving technological world. Sharper images of many areas—though perhaps not restricted airspace—can be readily achieved via manned airplanes (and low-flying commercial drones will become a major competitor in some imaging markets). Technological progress and proliferation in other countries allow them previously American-only capabilities. American companies are at an international disadvantage when competing with less restricted foreign firms, waiting for months for approval from the U.S. government to sell large-scale imagery abroad.

Updating anachronistic regulations will be important. Perhaps even more important will be learning the lessons of industries like remote imaging and not erecting regulatory barriers that merely push commercial firms overseas. With calls to expand regulatory authority into new potential commercial areas—such as on-orbit servicing or asteroid mining—it will be crucial that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Regulatory Processes

The future of commercial space will not be determined only by the actual regulations, but also by the informal decision-making processes that establish those rules. Space capabilities are vitally important to American military power projection and national security. As such, decisions about commercial capabilities often get run through a national security review gauntlet. Because authorities for various space capabilities are spread across agencies, decisions may also run through a complex interagency process.

When the government was the primary actor in space, this process was not as problematic. If commercial space continues to grow, especially if launch tempo increases dramatically and mega-constellations are deployed, it is unlikely that this regulatory system will be able to keep up with the pace. Even now, it is under strain.

To fix this, the government will have to make some difficult decisions about how to approach commercial space coherently. Part of a solution may be reorganizing parts of the regulatory structure, such as elevating the Office of Commercial Space Transportation out of the Federal Aviation Administration. Other solutions may include making national security vetoes of commercial operations more transparent by requiring higher-level officials to sign off on decisions. Funding and staff shortfalls for regulatory bodies may also have to be addressed, though it is important to ensure that the government does not just throw money and people at the problem.

Making Commercial Space Great

The Administration’s focus on boosting commercial space is admirable. A competitive commercial sector could provide new economic growth for the United States while also reducing costs for the government’s needed space capabilities. The commercial sector has made some impressive advancements in the last decade, and seems on the edge of breaking through into a new era of space use and exploration. For that to happen, however, we first need to focus on decisions made a bit closer to home.