Apr 11, 2019 - 1:30pm

Space Debris Concerns Create ‘Dust-Up’ Between the FCC and Commerce


Senior Economist

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Space shuttle Atlantis in orbit on a mission in 2009.
Space shuttle Atlantis in orbit on a mission in 2009.

Over the decades of human space travel, thousands of objects are now in orbit above the earth. They include working satellites and the International Space Station, but they also include old, out-of-commission satellites, used rocket components, and even a wrench and toothbrush.

The resurgence of interest in the commercial use of space, which includes satellite navigation and imagery, has led to a series of policy directives aimed at streamlining and modernizing the government’s regulatory approach when it comes to space. As is common with such exercises, a food fight regarding bureaucratic turf has emerged over space debris that threatens the roll-out of these initiatives.

The emerging “dust-up” has occurred because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has presented a notice of proposed rulemaking that addresses concerns about orbital debris. The FCC first adopted rules in 2004, and the proposed rule is an attempt to address orbital debris mitigation given the subsequent changes in satellite technologies and market conditions, particularly in low-earth orbit.

This effort unnecessarily duplicates work the Department of Commerce (DoC) is coordinating across multiple agencies.

The FCC is right to identify orbital debris as a problem worthy of attention. In fact, Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3) from the National Space Council recognized space traffic management and space situational awareness as crucial to the sustainable use of space, which is becoming increasingly congested and contested. Christian Zur, the Executive Director of the U.S. Chamber’s Procurement and Space Industry Council, noted at a Council roundtable last August that “this trend presents challenges for the safety, stability, and sustainability of U.S. space operations.” Already, the Department of Defense tracks over 20,000 objects in space, and that number will increase dramatically as new, more capable sensors come online and are able to detect smaller objects.

Dr. Scott Pace, Executive Director of the National Space Council, and Kevin O’Connell, the Director of the Office of Space Commerce at the DoC both participated in the August 2018 U.S. Chamber roundtable, one of the first public forums about SPD-3. The discussion at that event focused on the policies, procedures, and practices necessary to enable the development of a viable commercial sector in space. It was widely acknowledged that the DoC would be the one-stop shop for space regulation, particularly for the regulation of orbital debris.

At the U.S. Chamber’s first annual space summit last December, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reiterated the Department’s focus on this important issue and noted it was one of the crucial foundations to get to a $1 trillion space economy: “President Trump’s Space Policy Directive 3 requires the Commerce Department to create a civil agency interface to provide basic SSA data services to commercial firms. This essential service will be free of user fees. The Commerce Department is excited to bring that mission into the 21st century. We’ve forged a strong alliance with DoD, the Air Force, and especially the U.S. Strategic Command.”

Suffice to say, regulation along the lines of the administration’s directives is foundational to the development of a mature regulatory regime. However, Christian Zur notes that the FCC approach puts the “cart before the horse, so to speak. There is already an established process underway and the Commission should participate in that process, rather than rushing ahead on its own efforts, however salutary the goal.”

The U.S. Chamber supports the Commerce Department in its call to have the FCC defer its actions until completion of the Department’s actions as mandated by the Space Policy Directives. The FCC should participate in the ongoing work of the Interagency Working Group on Commercial Orbital Debris Requirements.

Nascent industries, such as the commercial space sector, need strong U.S. leadership to coordinate the rulemaking process and avoid overlapping or inconsistent regulations, which create uncertainty in markets and increase the cost of doing business. The Procurement and Space Industry Council is leading the efforts of the business community to address these crucial regulatory challenges.

In keeping with this approach, the U.S. Chamber will convene a roundtable on May 6 to address the need for coordinated regulatory efforts between the FCC and the Department of Commerce regarding the integration of the commercial airspace with commercial space launches. As Zur notes, “the development of a viable commercial space sector will only occur with the development of reliable rules of the road and a mature regulatory environment. Despite the chasm across parties and branches of government, this is one area of shared purpose and is worthy of progress.”

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About the Author

About the Author

Brian Higginbotham
Senior Economist

Brian Higginbotham is a senior economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.