As it has done with other business sectors, the Trump administration wants to bring deregulation to the final frontier.

In recent years, space exploration has transformed into space commercialization, with companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin among the many companies launching rockets, landing them, and deploying satellites along the way. These private efforts have eclipsed most of the U.S. government’s own initiatives.

The challenge, for legislators and regulators, is how to govern these aeronautical upstarts under the current regulatory regime. More importantly, perhaps, is how to keep old-school rules from stifling modern innovation.

Discounting talk of space militarization, mars colonization, attempts to cast a new space race with China playing the part of the former Soviet Union, and the flighty desire to create a “space force,” the Trump administration has taken a lead in accommodating the needs of private companies in the space marketplace.

That vision was codified, through the office of Vice President Mike Pence in February with the release of a strategy blueprint titled, “Moon, Mars, and Worlds Beyond: Wining the Next Frontier.” The report outlines ways the administration wants to “streamline the regulatory environment for commercial space companies.”

Among the recommendations:

The Secretary of Transportation should work to transform the launch and reentry licensing regime;

the Department of Transportation would require a single license for all types of launch and reentry vehicle operations and transform the launch and reentry regulatory process from one of prescriptive requirements to a performance-based licensing regime;

the Secretary of Commerce should consolidate its space commerce responsibilities, other than launch and reentry, in the Office of the Secretary of Commerce; and

the Commerce Department should develop a legislative proposal to create an Under Secretary of Space Commerce, who would be responsible for all commercial space regulatory functions.

The priorities reflect the many challenges the administration faces as it pursues deregulation. There is overlap among regulators, for example, and, as a result, confusion about necessary project-based licensing and waivers.

Logistics are also getting more complicated by the day. What should be done about “space debris” and defunct satellites cluttering the exosphere? How should rocket launches be coordinated so they are not a threat to other flight paths and the already crowded skies of airliners? How can intellectual property and national security secrets be protected in an industry that has gone global?

Prior to the release of the report, in June 2017, President Trump reactivated the National Space Council for the first time in 24 years. It was last active in the early 1990s, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

The 29 members include chief executives of most major aerospace companies, including Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX. Executives of entrepreneurial companies are also on the committee, represented by Relativity Space and Vox Space, the arm of Virgin Orbit that handles U.S. government relations. Rounding out the revived panel are former military officials and politicians, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and former astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Eileen Collins.

In February, Pence spoke of the relaunch of the National Space Council, at its second official meeting.

“But as this National Space Council has already come to understand, American businesses that want to launch satellite-servicing missions are often stifled by a convoluted maze of bureaucratic obstacles and outdated regulatory processes.”
Vice President Mike Pence

It will work to “encourage America’s pioneering space companies in the private sector to increase their activity in low-Earth orbit, where the government will be a partner and a customer, not a competitor,” he said, addressing an audience at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Not long ago, no one would have dreamt of landing a vehicle on an asteroid to mine its minerals, or opening a private space station for tourists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, or operating a satellite refueling station hundreds of miles above the Earth.  But today, these are all emerging businesses.” 

In the past, whenever a satellite ran out of fuel, it had to be replaced, Pence added. It was “an expensive and time-consuming process, like buying a new car every time it runs out of gas.”  

“We now have within our reach the technology to get around this problem,” he added. “But as this National Space Council has already come to understand, American businesses that want to launch satellite-servicing missions are often stifled by a convoluted maze of bureaucratic obstacles and outdated regulatory processes.” 

Pence added that the U.S. launch-licensing regime is also plagued by burdensome government barriers. To make matters worse, he said, launch licenses can’t be transferred often from one site to another.

“If a company receives its licenses to launch a rocket from the Kennedy Space Center, but then wants to move their mission to California, or even just a few miles away from Cape Canaveral, that same company must complete the entire process all over again, from start to finish,” Pence said. “The government has figured out how to honor driver’s licenses across state lines. There’s no reason we can’t do the same for rockets.”

Given the ever-increasing role of private companies in the modern space race, it may not come as a surprise that the Commerce Department is taking on a larger role in regulatory rethinking.

Space is already a $330 billion industry supporting 211,000 U.S. jobs and is forecast to be a multitrillion-dollar one in coming decades, the Commerce Department says. Of the 1,700 new companies created worldwide last year, 45 percent were based in the United States.

In March, at the Satellite 2018, the satellite industry’s annual meeting in Washington D.C., U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross addressed ongoing efforts to streamline space-focused regulations.

“The rate of innovation is extraordinary, so we need an adaptable and relatively permissive regulatory system for space commerce,” he said.

His agency’s review “of the outdated regulatory framework” has made it clear that “the rate of regulatory change must match the rate of technological change.

“It is time to unshackle business activity in space,” Ross said.

His goal is to create a new “one-stop shop” for space commerce. That plan calls for moving the Office of Space Commerce and the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office from their present location in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to his direct oversight at the Commerce Department.

“This will provide increased access and enable swift regulatory decision making,” Ross said. “This elevated and amplified Office of Space Commerce will coordinate all space-related functions at the Department—remote sensing, spectrum policy, business and trade promotion, and export controls.”

Ross also plans to soon have in place a new director of the Office of Space Commerce, a position that has been vacant for more than 10 years.

The Department further proposes that the Space Council recommend to President Trump that all space commerce responsibilities, other than the launch and reentry licensing presently managed by the Department of Transportation, be consolidated in the Department of Commerce.

“Activities such as asteroid mining, space tourism, and space habitation are quickly becoming more than the fictions we read about or saw in movies as children,” Ross said. “We need a future-oriented space commerce agenda and supportive regulatory regime. With input and guidance from the Space Council, the Department of Commerce can be the one-stop shop the industry so sorely needs. The mindset should be one of sensible facilitation.”

As an example of regulatory concerns, he cited the satellite industry. “Satellite companies face a permitting timeline that is undefined, indefinite, and provides no certainty or predictability to the industry,” he said, adding that permitting can sometimes take five or more years.

“With the time from design to launch now much shorter than that regulation is, unfortunately, the gating factor,” Ross said. “This is unacceptable and must change …That little red Tesla in outer space does need rules of the road, but there shouldn’t be too many one-way streets, dead ends, or U-turns.”

Another issue Ross raised is one of export controls.

“Today, if a company launches a vehicle that returns to Earth in international waters or non-U.S. territory, it is treated as an ‘export’ of sensitive and dangerous technology,” he said. “This approach is a primary complaint of space companies.”

Ross praised progress of legislation in Congress that will aid his efforts, H.R. 2809, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. The bill seeks to “enhance the existing outer space authorization and supervision framework to provide greater transparency, greater efficiency, and less administrative burden.”

The bill was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). It has passed in the House of Representatives and is now under review by the Senate.

The bill grants the Office of Space Commerce of the Department of Commerce the authority to issue certifications to U.S. nationals and non-governmental entities for the operation of:

specified human-made objects manufactured or assembled in outer space, including on the Moon and other celestial bodies, with or without human occupants, that were launched from Earth; and

all items carried on such objects that are intended for use in outer space.

To be eligible for certification, each entity’s application must include a space debris mitigation plan for the space objects.

Last month, Pence and Ross also announced the development of a new, comprehensive policy on space traffic management (STM) to be approved by the President.

The policy directs the Commerce Department to “provide a basic level of space situational awareness,” for public and private use, “based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense, so military leaders can focus on protecting and defending national security assets in space.”

The policy will encourage the commercial space industry to partner with the government to develop data-sharing systems, technical guidelines, and safety standards to apply domestically and be promoted internationally that will help minimize debris, and avoid satellite collisions during launch and while in orbit.

Ross also announced that his agency will convene an international space regulatory conference in the U.S. no later than January 2019 to discuss space traffic management coordination with private industry.

On April 30, the Hudson institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, held a conference entitled “Space 2.0: U.S. Competitiveness and Policy in the New Space Era.”

Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council was among the speakers.

“Some international legal experts are calling for new treaties today to deal with challenges in space,” he said. “The U.S., however, does not believe that new treaties are needed but does believe that we should be working closely with other spacefaring nations to promote norms of safe and responsible behavior in space.”

“What this means is that rather than a top-down treaty negotiation, we should take more of a bottom-up approach with civil and commercial space operators to define best practices that can be developed into non-binding, voluntary guidelines,” he added. “As such guidelines become more internationally accepted, nations, including the U.S., can then choose to codify these guidelines into national policy, law, and regulation.”

“I think the core objective that the Space Council has is, really, how do we keep the the flag of choice for companies that want to go into space?” said Earl Comstock, director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning.