Why Biden's Proposed Investment in Space Object Surveillance is a Big Deal

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Space policy and technology experts weighed in on the nearly 800% increase for the Office of Space Commerce included in the FY2023 budget request.

President Joe Biden’s budget request for fiscal year 2023 commits roughly $88 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Space Commerce—nearly an eight-fold increase from its 2021 enacted level of funding—to help govern Earth’s orbit and inform satellite operators and others about the increasing heaps of items swirling out there, among other responsibilities. 

“This is long overdue and very welcome. It shows the Biden White House is moving positively forward on a constructive space agenda. When I was on the [2016-2017] Trump transition team, someone suggested I take the position of director of that office, and I rejected it because it had an $800K budget and 3 staff, coming out of the Obama administration,” Greg Autry, a professor and commercial space advocate told Nextgov on Tuesday. “You can’t buy a condo for $800K in D.C., much less protect the space economy from space debris and do the other functions that office should have been doing.”

Autry was named by former President Donald Trump in 2020 to serve as NASA’s chief financial officer. His nomination was cleared in committee but expired before it was confirmed by the full Senate. In separate conversations this week, he and other space-aligned experts briefed Nextgov on what they view as a reasonable budget allocation for the Office of Space Commerce—as well as some remaining gaps that might hinder it from performing certain newly-assigned operations.

“One of the most important space policy issues facing the world right now is the safe, efficient, and transparent coordination of space situational awareness data,” noted Jared Stout, director of congressional and regulatory policy at Meeks, Butera and Israel. “We all need to have reliable and transparent data to ensure that our operators are making good decisions about their activities in orbit.”

‘Governance is a Huge Mission’

The Office of Space Commerce has been around for decades. Its mission, posted on its website, is to “foster the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the U.S. commercial space industry.”

As they briefed Nextgov, the officials noted that this big bump up in its proposed funding is necessary—and overdue.

“I advocated for increasing the budget to at least $40 million and moving the office out of NOAA to report directly to the Secretary of Commerce, which was its original position when the office was established by an act of Congress in the ‘80s,” Autry said, referring to his time during the presidential transition. He said the office had been “pushed down into NOAA under [former Vice President Al Gore’s] ‘reinventing government’ work, as was the” Transportation Department’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, “pushed into [the Federal Aviation Administration].”

According to Stout, who previously served in multiple government roles, including as the National Space Council’s deputy executive secretary and chief of staff, “there is no doubt that this is a large increase over what Commerce has requested in the past, and what Congress has been funding thus far.” 

Still, public details about how the money—if approved by Congress—would be spent remain sparse at this point. All that was shared from the administration was included in one paragraph in the FY2023 request.

“The budget expands opportunities for civil space situational awareness and supports the long-term sustainability of the space environment by committing $88 million, a $78 million increase from the 2021 enacted level, for the Office of Space Commerce, in order to improve real-time tracking and reporting of space objects and debris, helping the space industry safely navigate a congested space environment. The budget also provides $2 million for [the Bureau of Economic Analysis] to develop new data tools to measure the space economy,” it reads.

“Without more detail on the request, it is difficult to know what exactly they are doing with the money, but conceivably, this could all be done immediately for less money than this through commercially available data,” Stout explained. “The requirements of Space Policy Directive 3, upon which this activity is predicated, are broader than just space debris, and it includes coordinating space situational awareness data for satellite operators as well. I would like to know more about how they plan to spend the money, but the plan should include commercial data providers in addition to government data that is coordinated and disseminated in a reliable and transparent manner.”

This proposed increase to the office’s funding comes as the commercialization of space is booming and the number of satellites, tools and debris is growing rapidly—and posing a variety of familiar and fresh threats. As Stout and the other officials noted, it also follows and is associated with Space Policy Directive 3, or SPD-3.

Part of an impactful package of space policy updates introduced by Trump’s administration, SPD-3 was released in 2018, and essentially transferred the role of monitoring space traffic and warning of possible collisions from the Defense Department and Space Command to the Office of Space Commerce, within the Commerce Department. Due to still-growing rises in the number of items orbiting Earth, the Pentagon aimed to shift from that responsibility and sharpen the focus on its national security mission in space.

Commerce has been slow to move on that transition, but plans to launch a new and improved space object tracking system called the Open Architecture Data Repository in the coming years.

Curtis Hernández, government relations director at LeoLabs and former director for the Executive Office of the President in the National Space Council, said his team is “elated to see this clear signal” from the president to Commerce to start making progress on implementing SPD-3—and particularly, its goal of encouraging and facilitating U.S. commercial leadership in space situational awareness, and space traffic management.

“The key issue here is governance, not simply tracking space junk. It’s about what is not being done today, which is developing policy, enforcing compliance and conducting safety investigations,” he told Nextgov. “We are happy to see OSC stepping into the governance role. For the first time ever, the U.S. will be able to develop policies, drive compliance and investigate mishaps—the core elements of governance.” 

In his view, “there are two transitions underway.” The first is the transition of governance from the military to the civilian agency office. The other transition, which Hernández said “should be the focus of this funding,” is a transition from a government-led infrastructure to a market-led infrastructure that is already in place and delivering operational services including debris monitoring. 

“Governance is a huge mission,” he explained. “OSC will need to stand up a team of policy experts, regulators and investigators.” 

Hernández added that when the discussions of SPD-3 started 6 years ago, the OSC would have needed to build its own infrastructure and collision avoidance service.

“In the intervening time, commercial industry has raced ahead and now delivers this operational service,” he noted. LeoLabs serves over half of all the active satellites in lower Earth orbit through contracts with SpaceX, OneWeb and others, for instance. He said OSC can now utilize such proven operational services as a foundation and build policies on top of them.

“[OSC] should never build a telescope, or radar, or software platform because they can leverage what’s already been done in the private sector and military,” Hernández said. “There is no need to compete with U.S. industry to build or operate tracking systems.”

‘Who is Going to Manage That Money?’

It's not certain that Congress will actually appropriate the full $88 million to enable the office to fulfill its fresh responsibilities. But the officials that spoke to Nextgov this week each applauded the president for this funding request for OSC and what they view as “taking this issue seriously.”

“Again, it is hard to know exactly what the plan is given the limited information available, but the development of Space Policy Directive 3 took over 6 months of pain-staking interagency coordination and consensus driven policy making,” Stout said. “The Biden administration is doing exactly the right thing by working to implement a solid policy developed with broad stakeholder agreement.” 

Some noted, however, that perhaps even more of an increase should be considered down the line.

“$88 Million is not a ‘big investment’ on any level of the federal government. NASA’s latest Space telescope cost more than 100 times that amount. Each launch of its Space Launch System rockets and Orion capsules will be in the range of 50 times that amount,” Autry said. “Keeping the most important new engine of economic growth for the twenty-first century safe is worth a lot more.”

He and the other executives Nextgov spoke to also highlighted some of the existing hindrances that could keep the Office of Space Commerce from effectively fulfilling its new task, even if it’s fully funded next fiscal year. Top of mind for most of them is the fact that OSC presently has no permanent director. Kevin O’Connell served as OSC’s director from 2018 through the end of the Trump Administration, but a replacement hasn’t been named.

“The administration should be praised for this budget request, but at the same time, their failure to fill the position of the director of the OSC for over a year is most regrettable. Who is going to manage that money?” Autry said. “Frankly, they should have just retained Kevin O’Connell, who was widely respected in the space community by Republicans and Democrats alike.”

“With strong administration and department support, the Office of Space Commerce can play an important role as a convener and cross-government advocate for space stakeholders on a host of issues, including space sustainability. This increase is a significant signal of support and a continuation of the emphasis on space sustainability issues we saw at the first National Space Council meeting,” Mike French, vice president for space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association and former NASA chief of staff, also told Nextgov. “We look forward to learning more about the proposed funding as well as the naming of a director for the office.”

There’s a long road with likely a lot of changes ahead, but the budget proposal confirms that the office’s pursuit is a priority on Biden’s agenda. 

“It is absolutely critical that we a) stand up the ability to coordinate space activity so that the United States can safely continue to develop economic activity in space and lead the world by example and b) provide a framework for operators to act in a way that is consistent with our vital national interests in space that does not risk the creation of additional orbital debris,” Stout said. “We need to do this now.”

The Office of Space Commerce did not respond to Nextgov’s request for comments by deadline.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect Autry’s proper nomination.