After more than a year in office, the Biden Administration is finally showing support for NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce. The FY2023 budget request includes a huge increase in funding for OSC to become the civil Space Situational Awareness agency and advocate for the U.S. commercial space sector. The office still lacks a permanent director, but if Congress goes along it will be in a much better position to fulfill its mandate.
The Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive-3 assigned the Department of Commerce the task of taking over SSA for non-military satellite operators from DOD, which historically has been responsible for tracking space objects and warning governments and private sector operators if a collision is likely. With the tremendous growth in the number of objects orbiting Earth, and the number of countries and companies putting them there, DOD wants to focus on its national security mission and turn over interfacing with everyone else to another government agency.
SPD-3 designated DOC as that agency and then-Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross enthusiastically took it on, hoping to use the tiny OSC within NOAA as a nucleus of a new Bureau of Space Commerce reporting directly to him that did much more to facilitate, regulate and promote the U.S. commercial space sector.
Congress has been wary of creating a new bureaucracy. It took two years even to get agreement from appropriators to merge OSC with another small NOAA office that regulates commercial remote sensing satellites and increase their combined budgets from $3.4 million to $10 million.
The FY2022 appropriations bill bumped that up to $16 million as the office moves forward to create an Open Architecture Data Repository (OADR) combining data from DOD and commercial companies that now have their own space object tracking systems. OSC is starting a pilot program with the goal of establishing a system where basic data would be available at no cost while premium services could be purchased from the commercial companies.
Congressional efforts even to formally authorize DOC to take on this responsibility, never mind elevate OSC out of NESDIS or create a new Bureau, stalled.
OSC is part of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS). The head of NESDIS, Steve Volz, gave an update on the OADR effort last month and a week later issued a Request for Information to industry seeking input on what capabilities they expect to have in the years ahead.
Volz, who is also Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, said he agrees the work needs higher visibility and authority within the Department and details would come in the FY2023 budget request.
Indeed, the FY2023 request would increase OSC’s funding to $87.7 million, a dramatic increase from the $16 million in FY2022. An additional $2 million is proposed for the Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis to create a new “Space Economy Satellite Account” to measure the contribution of space-related industries to economic growth.
Not only that, but the Department’s interest in OADR and more broadly promoting the commercial space industry got a paragraph in the Department’s agency summary as well as a new strategic plan for 2022-2026. There is no indication OSC will be elevated out of NOAA to the Secretary’s office as envisioned by Ross, or even out of NESDIS as recommended by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but the call-out in those documents is an indication that the issue is receiving top-level attention.
Source: Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2023
The strategic plan’s Strategic Objective 7 is “Advance U.S. leadership in the global commercial space industry.” It identifies five strategies of which only one is the SSA mandate. The others are broader, including growing the customer base for U.S. commercial space goods and services, promoting commercial space innovation, and coordinating regulatory functions across domestic and international stakeholders to promote competitiveness.
It’s a budget request, not a policy directive from Vice President Harris’s National Space Council, but it is the first indication that these issues are on the Biden-Harris Administration’s agenda.
Time will tell if Congress agrees.