Lawmakers Propose to Address Space Tech in the FY 2023 NDAA

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Proposed amendments to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act spending legislation aim to address issues of space debris, technology and critical infrastructure.

The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act—the annual bill that authorizes Defense Department spending levels and provides overall military policy—may serve as a vehicle for several space policy initiatives currently under consideration in Congress.  

An amendment in the House of Representatives’ version of the bill and a proposed amendment to the Senate’s version look to address orbital debris—an area of increasing interest in the government, as there are more than 8,000 metric tons of debris currently in orbit and more than 900,000 pieces of orbital debris.

While NASA and the Federal Communications Commission recently tried to address the growing issue of such debris, Congress is now looking to add measures to combat space junk.

The Senate amendment was introduced by Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., “to preserve the sustainability of operations in space.” As such, the amendment contains provisions to:

  • Create an orbital debris remediation list, which prioritizes debris that poses the most immediate risk. 
  • Establish an active orbital debris remediation demonstration program within NASA, working with industry to develop technology to remediate the problem either by repurposing the debris or removing it. The program would focus on research, development and demonstration of technologies that can safely perform active debris remediation missions successfully. The program would have competitive awards for the remediation of the identified orbital debris. It allots $150 million for fiscal years 2023 through 2027 to carry out this effort.
  • Have NASA partner with other nations to address their respective orbital debris.
  • Utilize active debris remediation services in conjunction with industry partners after demonstrating viability.
  • Create consistent orbital debris standards. Specifically, the amendment would update the National Space Council’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices and encourage the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to use these updated standards and for other nations to utilize these standards. 

This amendment was also introduced as a standalone bipartisan bill in September. 

“Our society is reliant on satellites in orbit, yet space junk is a constant, growing threat,” Sen. Hickenlooper, chair of the Commerce Subcommittee on Space and Science, said. “Space debris endangers everything from global communications, to advanced weather forecasting, to human space exploration.”

The House amendment—introduced by Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas—requires the Secretary of Defense to send a report on space debris to the relevant Congressional committees on “the risks posed by man-made space debris in low-earth orbit.”

Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced an amendment that would mandate the director of National Intelligence, the secretaries of State, Defense and Commerce, and NASA administrator—as well as the heads of other agencies the director deems necessary—to collectively create and submit to Congress a a report on international norms, rules and principles applicable for space, which includes identifying threats and principles for dual-use technology. 

Another amendment introduced by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-Nev., gives guidance on the transition of the Space Development Agency—a DOD agency that works on space acquisition and uses the National Defense Space Architecture—becoming part of the Space Force in October 2022, including that it should keep its original organizational structure during this time. 

The House-passed version of the bill also included an amendment that looks for an update and review of establishing space as critical infrastructure. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., introduced the  amendment, which asks the Government Accountability Office’s Comptroller General to examine: actions taken by the Department of Homeland Security to determine if it should establish space as critical infrastructure and the status of those efforts, if any, as well as the extent that the current 16 critical infrastructure sectors—established in a 2013 Presidential Policy Directive— apply to space and its systems and  technology, or where there are gaps. GAO is expected to send a report to pertinent congressional committees. In 2021, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency created a working group to examine establishing space as critical infrastructure. 

The House version of the NDAA for fiscal year 2023 passed in July. The Senate is expected to tackle its version of the legislation—which has more than 900 filed amendments—when it reconvenes after the midterm elections. The two bodies will then have to resolve differences and vote for final passage, before it is sent to the president’s desk.