COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The National Space Council has formulated a comprehensive space traffic management policy, which it will “soon” be sent to the president’s desk for approval, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced Monday.
“This new policy directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use based on the space catalog compiled by the Department on Defense so that our military leaders can focus on protecting and defending our national security assets in space,” Pence said during a speech at the Space Symposium.
“The policy will also 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, avoid satellite collisions during launch and while in orbit.”
Managing the movement of objects in space has long been a concern for the U.S. government, with the U.S. military acting as a de facto regulator of space traffic. The Defense Department manages the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, which uses ground-based sensors and radars to track satellites and debris in space, which are then logged in the space catalog.
Pence noted that there are “tens of thousands of man-made objects orbiting the Earth, including more than 1,500 active satellites and thousands of inactive satellites and spacecraft fragments.” That number will increase exponentially in the coming years, as access to space grows and low-cost launch vehicles and small satellites become the norm.
Although the vice president’s brief statements at Space Symposium didn’t lay out the specifics of the Commerce Department’s new responsibilities, if Commerce is able to take a larger role in regulating space traffic, it follows that the U.S. military will have more resources to focus on the business of war fighting in space.
“Under this new policy, we will preserve the integrity of our critical space assets and foster an orbital environment, where America’s space companies can propel our nation to new heights for generations to come,” Pence said.
Brian Weeden, director of program planning for space policy think tank Secure World Foundation and a former Air Force officer who worked in space situational awareness, tweeted that the announcement sounded “very much like what Obama [administration] was working on” except with the Department of Commerce, not Transportation, in the lead.
During his 23-minute-long speech, Pence praised President Donald Trump’s leadership on space issues, touted the work of the Space Council he chairs and recognized leaders in the audience including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who has been nominated as NASA’s administrator.
But for the most part, his speech was focused on space exploration and reforms to the commercial space industry. He did not touch on national security space issues —including Trump’s own call for a “Space Force.”
The closest Pence got to speaking explicitly about national security was during his opening comments, which mentioned the work of the defense industrial base in developing the weaponry used to strike Syrian chemical weapons sites on Friday.
The vice president didn’t call out Raytheon or Lockheed Martin — which manufacture the Tomahawk cruise missiles and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles launched during the airstrikes — by name.
But he said he was mindful of ”many of the great American companies that helped develop the missile technology,”adding that he would be “remiss not to express the great admiration and gratitude of the commander in chief and the American people.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.