coalition for
regulatory innovation

March 23, 2018

To Boldly Go Where No Human Has Gone Before

Exploration of the next frontier, outer space, is being hindered by out dated and misaligned red tape. It’s been some time since the first ever recorded space launch of Sputnik in 1957, and almost equally as long since the Apollo 11 astronauts returned from space in 1969 – back then space exploration was exclusive to governments of world super powers. In 2018, private companies are now ready to take the lead in the new-age “space race,” but our antiquated space policy and slow permitting process is standing in the way of progress.

As the private sector does the hard work of making innovative breakthroughs that will drastically improve daily life here on earth – and maybe someday in space – government agencies should be helping innovators navigate the creative process instead of slowing progress with an environment of stagnation, overreach and excessive intervention. Private companies pioneering space exploration are facing regulatory obstacles akin to what the U.S. telecommunication industry is up against in today’s “5G race” – emerging technology simply doesn’t match up to existing regulations. For example – telecommunication companies looking to pilot 5G deployment are running into regulatory roadblocks and denied access due to outdated permits that are not designed for the new 5G technology.

For example, out of control red tape grounded the launch of a satellite by a Silicon Valley company, Swarm Technologies.  The company was forced to launch their satellite out of India instead.  According to a recent Quartz report, “Swarm Technologies, a stealthy firm that hopes to provide space-based communications for the “internet of things,” launched four satellites they call “SpaceBees” on an Indian rocket in January.” The report goes on to say that the issue that led to Swarm Technologies controversial India launch involved a “gap between the [U.S.] FCC’s regulation of objects in space the [U.S.] FAA’s regulation of their launches.” IEEE broke the news of Swarm Technologies regulatory woes stating that “the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had dismissed Swarm’s application for its experimental satellites a month earlier, on safety grounds.”

If the 5G and Swarm Technologies experience is any indication, the U.S. government is struggling to keep up with the pace of rapid technological advancement.

Reaching for the stars comes with a hefty price tag too. A recent TechCrunch article gives a rundown of some of the emerging key players in the industry and what sort of projects they hope to achieve:

“SpaceX and companies like Blue OriginVirgin OrbitRocket LabRelativity Space and SpinLaunch are all vying to bring down the cost of launching payloads into space. And on the other side of the equation, satellite companies like SpireAstranisAkash SystemsOneWebPlanet and a host of others are reducing costs for building equipment with monitoring and communications technologies for terrestrial applications from space.”

As exciting as this might seem, not only will these companies have to overcome some of the high cost associated with these activities, but to top it off, antiquated government regulations are holding back the deployment of industry innovation. To unleash market forces – the government needs to improve technological processes and update regulations to keep up with the pace of private industries technological advancements. If the government follows suit – these private companies can increase competition organically which will drive the cost of doing business down resulting in an outgrowth of the emerging U.S. space industry.

According to Harvard Political Review, a group of private entities, including SpaceX, sent a letter to the regulatory authority governing space business explaining that some of the current regulations as “overly burdensome and outdated,” the need for a full overhaul of launch and reentry licenses, more efficient and timely permitting process, as well as transparency of the permitting process. Some, if not all, of these regulatory issues are likely a contributing factor in the kerfuffle surrounding the recent launch out of India.

There is some action happening in Washington, D.C. aimed at addressing these concerns – but it barely scratches the surface of what regulatory innovation is needed. Just last month, the U.S. National Space Council and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce announced efforts to improve the regulatory environment for commercial space in the U.S. to attract foreign investors to do space-related business in the country. In a recent interview with Space News, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said of these efforts:

“What we’re trying to do is to make it easier for legitimate space activities to be conducted. My slogan is, the rate of regulatory change must accelerate until it can match the rate of technological change.”

Though the appetite is there – regulatory change is simply not accelerating fast enough to match the rate of technological change. In fact, it almost seems as if it’s going backwards – for example – earlier this month, the U.S. government couldn’t even read all of its public comments due to “breakdowns in technology,” failing the American people and the public policy-making process.

In Congress, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which passed committee last summer, would designate all non-launch/reentry space activities as regulatory responsibilities of the Office of Space Commerce within the Department of Commerce.

The bill sponsor said of the legislation:

“The OSC’s new responsibilities would include implementing a streamlined remote-sensing permit process as well as establishing an oversight framework for ‘non-traditional’ private space activities such as asteroid mining, moon landings, and space habitats. Its ultimate goal is ensuring that ‘as commercial space companies keep coming up with innovative activities in space, they have a transparent and predictable path to approval,’ Kilmer explained.”

While this legislation addresses some of the issues the space industry faces, a recent Space Policy Online report provides one of several clear examples of what these companies are up against when it comes to the lack of basic permit framework:

“As an example of the current confused process, Armor detailed the steps that Orbital ATK went through to get approval for its satellite servicing mission, Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), which will be launched a year from now on a Proton rocket.   They involved the FAA/AST for a launch and payload review, NOAA for a remote sensing license because the cameras on the system used for proximity operations see Earth in the background, agencies involved in the ITAR export control process, and the FCC for radio frequencies.

Armor said the company was surprised that it needed the NOAA commercial remote sensing license and noted that in August NOAA changed its rules.  Now Orbital ATK also will have to get written consent from the owner/operator of any other satellite the system might inadvertently image or, if it does not have approval, purge the data, which he says is not possible.  Thus, operational plans for MEV-1 are in “disarray.”  He called for the government to have a single entity — a clearinghouse — where companies can go to get requisite approvals and argued FAA/AST should be that entity.  He also said it would be helpful to speed up the process, noting that it has taken 7 years to get to this point.”

This is just a drop in the bucket of regulatory issues private companies encounter when trying to do business in space, marking significant lags for an industry that could potentially add significantly to the U.S. economy. In fact, a 2017 Niskanen Center research paper titled, “The Future of Space Commercialization” outlines the importance of the space industry for the U.S. economy going into the future. In order for America to maintain its competitive edge and reap the benefits of commercialized space, a lot more work will need to be done to bring space regulations into the present and continue to keep these policies up to speed with the nascent technology of space exploration.