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'Now More Than Ever'

Space Community Continues to Seek Beefed-Up Office of Space Commerce

The Commerce Department's Office of Space Commerce is the natural home for authorization and oversight of in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) missions, a parade of space interests told the National Space Council Monday. A similar NSpC listening session last week had numerous parties saying the lack of a single regulatory home for novel space missions is hurting the industry (see 2211140047).

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More than one speaker Monday also noted space operators and allies have advocated for that beefed-up role for Commerce. "We need this framework now more than ever," said Kevin O'Connell, space consultant and former Office of Space Commerce director. He warned that a lengthy and opaque decision-making process will drive companies to other nations in search of more-permissive business environments.

Citing the FCC's ISAM notice of inquiry adopted in August (see 2208050023), Atomo Space Chief Operating Officer William Kowalski said there's a need for an agency that makes ISAM a singular focus, rather than adding it on to spectrum responsibilities, and there could be difficulties in adopting the commission's regulatory structure to novel ISAM operations.

Many speakers also backed umbrella licenses for ISAM activities under pre-approved parameters, with operators required to provide notifications only when going from one mission to the next. Many also said ISAM regulation should operate on a presumption of approval.

Beyond overseeing activities that don't fall under FCC, NOAA or FAA responsibility, the Office of Space Commerce should have responsibility for standardizing orbital debris mitigation requirements, said Secure World Foundation space law advisor Chris Johnson. He said under the Outer Space Treaty the U.S. also has to pay attention to issues such as potential monopolization of orbits or frequencies, and each novel operation should have a due regard review that looks at such possible prejudicial effects. He said the U.S. doing that could drive other countries to reciprocate.

Multiple novel activities already have been authorized by regulators, and any future regulatory framework has to carry a lesser regulatory burden rather than imply those already-approved activities are of a lesser authorization or unauthorized, said Mike French, Aerospace Industries Association vice president-space systems. He said the steps those already-approved activities had to go through should be considered a ceiling for future applications, with future applicants not having to provide more data or go further in conditions.

The lack of one regulatory body as home for commercial space missions "reduces the speed and flexibility with which U.S. companies can bring innovative technology to bear," while increasing space mission operational risks, MITRE and the Aspen Institute said in a report Monday. They said space norms the U.S. declares and enforces for domestic operators can help create international norms.

Multiple novel space mission operators said the current regulatory framework, with different agencies overseeing discrete aspects of missions, leaves a lot to be desired.

The lack of a clear unified legal framework for commercial space stations makes it tough to answer investors', insurers' and contracting partners' questions, said Sierra Space Senior Legal Counsel Elisabeth Pinsonneault. Absent one agency with oversight and proper resources, other agencies will step in and create redundant requirements, she said. She said the FCC taking a bigger role in orbital debris mitigation is an example.

Brad Cheetham, Advanced Space CEO, said the company's satellite now orbiting the moon went through a complicated regulatory approvals process. He said he was concerned future missions could face an even more complex regulatory process due to the variety of agencies involved. Northrop Grumman's Space Logistics satellite servicing vehicles are overseen today largely by the FCC because the missions so far are supporting the satellite communications industry, but future ISAM missions and tech will diverge from communications, said Vice President Joe Anderson.

The FAA is well suited for now to regulate Zeno Power's activities, but it's limited in what it can supervise regarding nuclear power sources for space activities, said Zeno Power Director-Space and Planetary Regulation Alex Gilbert. Its regulatory capacity "must grow" and there's a supervision gap regarding operations in orbit and on the lunar surface, he said.

Supervision of ongoing space ISAM activities can be a matter for the courts, with a company or individual being allowed to operate until it has broken the law, said Michael Mealing of the Space Frontier Foundation. He pushed for a system of all applications having approval and only registration required up until the point the law is broken or there's general consensus a problem has arisen, he said. He said in the case of a significant problem or it's clear that regulations are required, Congress should turn to industry drafting committees to put together the rules.