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A report commissioned by Congress affirmed the administration’s choice of the Office of Space Commerce within the Department of Commerce as the lead agency for civil space traffic management. (credit: ESA)

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When President Trump appeared at a meeting of the National Space Council at the White House in June 2018, the highlight was his announcement that the administration would seek to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch. It overshadowed his signing of Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3, which focused on space traffic management and assigned responsibilities to the Commerce Department (see “Managing space traffic expectations”, The Space Review, June 25, 2018).

While the administration decided to give that authority to the Office of Space Commerce, some in Congress still thought AST was the better home. So, in a classic move, they commissioned a report.

More than two years later, and the Space Force is now in existence, its formation approved by Congress in a defense authorization bill last year and now focused on details as varied as integrating Air Force units into the service to what its logo should be. That’s greater progress than on implementation of SPD-3. Those civil space traffic management (STM) activities, including warning satellite operators of potential conjunctions with other satellites and debris, remains in the hands of the Defense Department, despite the language of the directive and the widespread agreement that it should not be the job of the Pentagon.

The Commerce Department has started planning to take on civil STM work, including working with the Defense Department and laying out an approach that called for using not just Defense Department data but information from companies and international partners, with the goal of creating more accurate warnings to satellite operators. What it has lacked, though, is resources: the department’s fiscal year 2020 budget request sought $10 million for the Office of Space Commerce (OSC), up from $1.8 million in 2019, primarily to handle SMT work. (Part of the increase was to merge the office with a separate NOAA office responsible for commercial remote sensing licensing.)

Congress, though, rejected the proposal, with appropriators skeptical that Commerce was the best agency to handle civil STM. Prior to SPD-3, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, had been the leading candidate to handle STM in addition to its work licensing commercial launches and reentries. While the administration decided to give that authority to the Office of Space Commerce, some in Congress still thought AST was the better home.

So, in a classic move, they commissioned a report. The final fiscal year 2020 budget increased the Office of Space Commerce’s budget by just $500,000, earmarking that extra funding for a report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to study which agency is best suited for the civil STM task.

The report, led by a panel chaired by Michael Dominguez, former assistant secretary of the Air Force and which included former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe and former NRO director Marty Faga, was released August 20. And, much to the relief of the administration, it concluded that the Office of Space Commerce was indeed the best agency for the job.

“Following its evaluative criteria, the Panel determines OSC to be best suited to perform STM tasks within the federal government,” the report succinctly stated.

That “evaluative criteria” involved grading the Office of Space Commerce against AST, NASA, and the Defense Department on a series of factors, such as functional and technical competency, organizational leadership and capacity, partnerships, and customer and stakeholder views. The panel and its staff conducted dozens of interviews with government and industry officials, then turned them into scores of between 0 and 3 to measure how competent each agency was in those factors.

NAPA distilled all that analysis into a final, overarching score for each agency. The Office of Space Commerce ranked highest, with a score of 2.9, followed by NASA at 2.55, AST at 2.25, then the Defense Department at 1.7.

“OSC views its STM responsibilities principally as a data management function, rather than principally as a task of managing space traffic,” the report concluded. “Flexibility and creativity are core features of the OSC vision to serve in this capacity, as innovation, new discoveries, and allowing creative commercial companies to thrive will best serve the strategic interests of the Nation, and the international space community.”

“We look forward to working with the Congress to quickly advance this critical space mission,” Ross said after the report’s release.

The other agencies, though, would also have roles in space traffic management. AST, the report said, must continue to focus on regulating launches and reentries, while NASA played a role in research on STM topics. The panel, the report concluded, “stresses the criticality of a continued close collaboration between OSC and these agencies going forward.”

The office, of course, also needs to cooperate with the Defense Department, since it will make use of space situational awareness data provided by the sensors that the department will continue to operate. “DoD and other national security agencies have capabilities that are classified and should remain so, but there is opportunity for OSC to use these while safeguarding national security to benefit the commercial space sector appropriately,” the report states.

The outcome is what the Commerce Department was hoping for. “I am pleased to see that following an intensive survey of key government and industry stakeholders, NAPA’s findings independently validate that the Department of Commerce is the best civil agency” for civil STM, said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a statement about the report.

“We’ve probably debated it too long”

Ross, in the statement, said that it was now up to Congress to provide the funding needed for the Office of Space Commerce to tackle STM. “We look forward to working with the Congress to quickly advance this critical space mission,” he said.

Another Commerce Department official, speaking on background, agreed. “What we would really hope for is an understanding that Commerce does have the ball on this,” the official said, noting that appropriators in the House and Senate had been briefed about the report before its public release. “We would like it to be understood that we have the lead role on this on behalf of the US government.”

It’s now up to Congress to act. In its fiscal year 2021 budget request, the Commerce Department sought $15 million for the Office of Space Commerce, primarily for civil STM work. The House, in its version of a spending bill passed in July, kept the office at its original funding of $1.8 million, with appropriators stating they were awaiting the NAPA report. The Senate has yet to take up its spending bill.

The NAPA report revealed that the Commerce Department expects the cost of carrying out civil STM to grow over time. A budget projection included in the report projects annual costs to grow to as much as $72.1 million in fiscal year 2024. That growth covers the costs of increased staff devoted to STM activities, technical infrastructure, and up to $25 million a year in commercial data purchases.

With its limited budget, the office has been doing some planning in anticipation that it will, eventually, win funding. “We’ve had a good amount of time to, as the secretary would say, sharpen our pencils on issues,” said Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce, in a podcast by AIAA, Mitre Corporation and the US Chamber of Commerce last week. “It did give us a lot of time to work through a whole host of issues that we know we’re going to have to deal with.”

But what does the broader space community think of the NAPA report’s conclusion that the Office of Space Commerce is the right agency to handle civil STM? Many are happy with the decision, but really just want the government to make a decision once and for all.

“In the end, it doesn’t really matter who does it, just that it gets done,” said Kunstadter.

“Quite honestly, as an owner-operator, we’re ambivalent, as long as it’s being done,” said Walt Everetts, vice president of space operations and engineering at Iridium, during a panel discussion last week at the AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum online. “I think it’s a fine choice,” he said of the Office of Space Commerce, “but I think we’ve probably debated it too long.”

Others on the panel involved with aspects of space traffic management agreed. Chris Kunstadter, global head of space for insurer AXA XL, credited the Commerce Department for taking the lead on the issue and showing an interest in doing it. But, he added, “in the end, it doesn’t really matter who does it, just that it gets done.”

“Who actually does it, I think, is less important as long as we start making some progress in doing it,” said Tim Maclay, chief executive of consulting company Celestial Insight and former director of mission systems engineering at OneWeb.

Other organizations, ranging from the National Space Society to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, endorsed the conclusions of the NAPA report and emphasized the need for an agency to take action on civil STM. But what Congress will do remains to be seen, a point emphasized in the AIAA panel by Darren McKnight, technical director of Centauri Corporation.

“You’re very optimistic when you say there was a decision,” he said after a panelist endorsed the findings of the NAPA report. “Clearly, Congress still needs to agree with that.”

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