WASHINGTON: With space increasingly crowded with civilian satellites, who should provide traffic control? While the Air Force has long tracked objects in space for military purposes, Congress must soon decide on which agency to give authority over civil space situational awareness (SSA), current and former space officials told the Senate space subcommittee yesterday.
The White House wants to give the job to the Commerce Department, but a number of prominent Democrats on both sides of Capitol Hill prefer the FAA.
Resolving the issue of who provides SSA data about potential on-orbit collisions — and who, eventually, will make new space traffic management (STM) rules — is critical to national security and the US economy, the high-powered panel of witnesses concurred.
“We need immediate and urgent all-of-government vision and direction on the definition of the U.S. SSA/STM capability,” said retired Air Force Col. Pamela Melroy. Melroy, who worked at both the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “Congress needs to take urgent action on who should oversee civil SSA and STM,” she chided, noting that, until that decision is made, the Air Force has “no partner with statutory authority” to be able to transfer responsibilities.
The Air Force has been charged with providing commercial operators with SSA data and analysis of possible satellite collisions since 2009, explained Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command. “In a de facto sense, the Air Force currently owns SSA/STM,” he said, but because the Air Force is not a regulatory agency, the job would be better suited to a civil agency. He unsurprisingly declined to weigh in on which one.
The Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive-3 issued in June gives the authority to the Commerce Department — a move that was supported today by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who chairs the Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation and Space.
Ranking Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, however, expressed interest in giving the job to the FAA, part of the Transportation Department. Sinema pointedly quizzed today’s witnesses — which also included Kevin O’Connell, head of the Commerce Department Office of Space Commerce, Jim Bridenstine, head of NASA and Robert Cardillo, former head of the National Geospatial-Intelligency Agency — about FAA’s efforts under the Obama Administration to take on the space role.
Obviously, as Trump appointees, both O’Connell and Bridenstine supported the White House’s choice. They both argued that Commerce would be better placed to understand what SSA/STM approaches would be needed by US commercial satellite firms in order for them to thrive and provide innovative solutions that can improve both the US economy and national security.
O’Connell further noted his office already is cooperating with DoD on issues related to how to transfer responsibility for civil SSA, with full support from the Air Force and DoD leadership.