The National Space Council on Wednesday, headed by Vice President Pence, formally recommended that space commerce responsibilities be consolidated under the Commerce Department, while creating a sort of space czar — an undersecretary of space commerce to oversee “all commercial space regulatory functions.”
In a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, Pence also announced a plan to streamline licensing requirements for rockets that launch and then return, which the industry has been pushing for.
The Commerce Department would also work to cut back on regulations for remote sensing and the way spacecraft approach and interact with each other in space. The recommendations, which would need to be approved by the president, come as companies such as Planet are putting up constellations of satellites to beam back images of the Earth. And others, such as Space Systems Loral and Orbital ATK, are working to perform maintenance in space, which could extend the life of satellites on orbit.
The moves are designed to reduce regulations and help boost the commercial space industry as it begins to show momentum.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said during the meeting that American industry was competing “against 70 foreign governments, so they need all the support we can give them.” To do that, he said there would be a “new, one-stop shop for space commerce.”
“Asteroid mining, space tourism and space habitats are quickly becoming much more than science fiction,” he said. “And we need a future-oriented space commerce agenda.”
In a speech, Pence likened the emerging space industry to “the railroads that opened up the American West.” And he said that as “captains of industry turn their gaze to the infinite frontier,” they would “usher in a new era of American space leadership.” But he said companies are too often “stifled” by “outdated regulatory processes.”
Brian Weeden, a technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation, a space advocacy group, said it was a “big positive” to find a way for “the government to say ‘yes’ to all the new and innovative commercial activities, such as satellite servicing and asteroid mining, which currently don’t have a licensing process.” But he said that not all space activity can be put under the umbrella of the Commerce Department since the Federal Aviation Administration is required by law to license rocket launches, and the Federal Communications Commission licenses radio frequency spectrum use.
Moving much of the regulation from the Department of Transportation to Commerce reflects an ideological difference, he said.
“Both commerce and transportation are tasked to promote and regulate industry, but Republicans perceive commerce as putting promotion ahead of regulation,” he said.
Whoever is in charge, the challenge will be whether the office has enough staff and resources to oversee the growing industry—“and they are already struggling to meet the workload of their existing responsibilities,” Weeden said.
The council's recommendations follow other wins for the industry, which for years has lobbied Congress to take the sort of hands-off approach that it said would allow it to flourish. More than a decade ago, it pushed for human space flights to be regulated by the same “informed consent” standards that govern extreme sports such as skydiving.
More recently, Congress pass legislation giving U.S. companies the right to the resources they mine in space — on asteroids or on the moon, for example.
The space council's meeting came a couple weeks after SpaceX launched its massive Falcon Heavy rocket and returned two of the boosters safely to a landing site on Cape Canaveral. Nick Ayers, Pence's chief of staff, tweeted before the launch that the rocket could have “major (positive) ramifications for US space industry if this goes according to plan.”
In his speech, Pence said the launch and landings were “very impressive indeed.”
Pence attended a reception where one of the boosters was on display Tuesday evening, ahead of the second meeting of the Space Council, which includes the secretaries of state, commerce, defense and transportation, among others. He also toured the facilities of the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, as well as Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
In an interview earlier this month while attending the Falcon Heavy launch, Ross, the commerce secretary, said he applauded the growing space industry's success in winning back a large portion of the world’s market share for commercial launches. He said one of the council’s top priorities is “to accelerate the progress of the commercialization of space. We’re moving quite aggressively to try to accomplish that.”