WASHINGTON — One of Capitol Hill’s most active lawmakers on space issues is planning to unveil a space reform bill this spring that could shift responsibility for tracking objects in orbit away from the Defense Department.
In a Jan. 15 interview with Defense News, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., offered details on the American Space Renaissance Act, which he plans to roll out during the Space Foundation’s annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in April.
The bill may eventually include language to transition responsibility for space situational awareness and space traffic management from the Pentagon to civilian agencies, Bridenstine said. Up until now, DoD has been responsible for monitoring and regulating space by default. However, with new advances in technology leading to more congestion in space, DoD, and particularly the Air Force, will soon be struggling to keep up with the workload.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which currently has a role in commercial space launch operations, should take more responsibility for space situational awareness, Bridenstine said.
“There are tremendous breakthroughs, and the concern there is, as phenomenal as they are, it will lead to more congestion in space, and that’s why we need to have some regulatory environment that is not inside the DoD,” Bridenstine said. “These are all things that ultimately are new and emerging capabilities that we have to figure out how to manage because ultimately the taxpayer is on the hook.”
The Air Force is currently responsible for tracking about 23,000 optics in space each day, and sends warnings to operators around the globe to prevent collisions, according to Lt. Gen. John Raymond, deputy chief of staff for operations. About once every three days, world satellite operators maneuver satellites into better positions based on that data, he noted.
“It is a pretty significant burden on us to be the air traffic control for the world,” Raymond said during a Jan. 20 event hosted by the Air Force Association.
There have been discussions about the FAA potentially taking over some of that role, said Raymond, who formerly headed the Joint Functional Component Command for Space and the 14th Air Force, which is responsible for space surveillance. In particular, the FAA could take on the work of notifying commercial operators of potential congestion based on Air Force observations and analysis, he said.
“There are opportunities ahead of us that we can use to capitalize on the FAA to help reduce the burden on protecting the commercial space in the future," said Raymond. “If we go down this path, we’re going to have to figure out how best to do it to one, make sure the domain is safe for all because that’s critical, and two, make sure that our ability to do national security space and have space surveillance is protected."
The push to move space tracking responsibility to civilian agencies is part of a larger trend toward increased influence of commercial and private companies in the space market, Bill Ostrove, an analyst with Forecast International, said in a Jan. 19 email. Historically, the space industry has been dominated by governments, but the commercial side is growing rapidly, he said.
With the rise of new space assets, such as large networks of tiny satellites, new methods are being considered to keep track of all the moving pieces, he said.
"Many in the government believe the FAA experience dealing with high volume air traffic is better suited to the current situation than the DoD's experience with tracking small numbers of high value satellites," Ostrove wrote.
Bridenstine’s space bill will also encourage greater collaboration between the Pentagon and commercial industry for communications and weather applications, Bridenstine told Defense News. The DoD is launching government-owned and operated satellites that don’t have anywhere near the capacity of commercial satellites, he said, adding that the department needs to take advantage of that capability.
“Whether it’s the DoD or NOAA, we can take advantage of that commercial data that is coming from those satellites,” Bridenstine said. Industry is “rapidly moving past where the government can keep up, and we need to take advantage of that.”
Instead of clunky, government-owned satellites, Bridenstine envisions a network of smaller, nimble spacecraft for military and civil communications. Such a distributed network actually would be a better defense against hostile actors trying to take out our communications systems, he said.
“Right now the enemy could target a big satellite and we would lose a multi-billion dollar capability,” Bridenstine said. “A distributed architecture of smaller satellites, the enemy might make the decision that it’s not worth it.”
The legislation may also include language about the need to end the US reliance on Russian rocket engines for military space launch by developing a domestic alternative, Bridenstine said. The bill will not weigh in on the controversial issue of whether to ban the use of the Russian RD-180 rocket booster, but instead will focus on creating incentives for commercial launches, he said. This will help ensure a robust commercial launch industry that is capable of handling “the manifest necessary for this new era of commercial space architectures,” he said.
“We have to as a country make sure that we have domestic launch capabilities that are second to none, both for the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] program and for commercial industry,” Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine sits on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which oversees some military space programs, and the House Space, Science and Technology Committee, which oversees NASA.
The purpose of the bill is to address the challenges the US faces in space in a comprehensive way, Bridenstine said. Bridenstine is under no illusions that Congress will pass the bill in full; instead, he said he expects lawmakers to incorporate sections of the legislation into authorization and spending bills for the Pentagon, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“The goal is to make sure the US is the preeminent nation when it comes to space,” Bridenstine told Defense News, explaining that the bill will cover military, commercial and civil space issues. “There might be areas where we can’t reach consensus, but we at least want to have the ideas out there and being discussed.”