Remarks at National Space Club-Huntsville
Today, Jason Kim of the Office of Space Commerce spoke about the Commerce Department’s initiatives in space commerce before the National Space Club-Huntsville in Alabama. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.
Thank you, Tim, for that kind introduction, and for inviting me to join you all this morning. It’s my honor to be here in “Rocket City” on behalf of my boss, Kevin O’Connell, Director of the Office of Space Commerce, and his boss, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.
DOC Roles in Space
Let me start off by asking, how many of you knew the Office of Space Commerce existed prior to this event? Perhaps some of you did not even know the Department of Commerce is involved with space. Allow me to take a minute to get everyone up to speed on that, then I will address some of the initiatives we are working on in terms of reorganization, regulatory reform, and space traffic management.
Of course, everyone knows about NOAA and its weather satellites, like the GOES-R series that’s producing all the incredible hurricane images in the news. NOAA is a huge part of the Department of Commerce and manages the nation’s largest fleet of operational civilian satellites.
NOAA is primarily a civil space agency, but like NASA, it is taking steps to stimulate development of commercial space markets. Yesterday, NOAA awarded contracts for the second round of its Commercial Weather Data Pilot, a data buy that will validate the feasibility and value of using commercially sourced GNSS radio occultation data in numerical weather prediction. This effort will help NOAA diversify its portfolio of data sources beyond governmental systems. Also at NOAA, we have the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office, which issues the operating licenses for all U.S. commercial imaging satellites.
Beyond NOAA, the Department of Commerce has the Bureau of Industry and Security, which licenses or authorizes the export of most commercial satellites and related components. BIS also monitors the health of the nation’s space industrial base. DOC’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, co-manages the spectrum used by satellites and other radio systems along with the FCC. Our International Trade Administration promotes American space companies overseas through advocacy and fair market access. Our National Institute of Standards and Technology drives innovation in a number of areas critical to space commerce, including advanced materials, high-precision sensing, and AI. And our Patent and Trademark Office protects intellectual property to ensure the United States remains a hub for innovation in space and other fields.
Finally, there is my office, the Office of Space Commerce. Our job is to coordinate space commerce policy activities across the Department. We herd all these diverse cats and dogs to develop department-wide positions on space issues and represent them at interagency fora such as the White House. We engage on a wide range of issues including satellite export controls, GPS, commercial remote sensing, and government use of commercial space services.
Our newly arrived Director Kevin O’Connell has laid out four strategic activities that he wants to focus on during his tenure. These are:
1) Industry Advocacy – at home and abroad
2) Removing Regulatory Barriers
3) Industry Engagement
4) Improving Analysis and Narratives for the Value of Space
In addition, we are heavily engaged in the execution of tasks that were recently directed to the Secretary of Commerce by the President of the United States.
As you may be aware, Secretary Wilbur Ross has a keen personal interest in space and space commerce—more than any other Secretary I have ever worked for during my 21 years at Commerce. In previous Administrations, we considered ourselves lucky if we could get 1-2 meetings a year with our Deputy Secretary to brief him on space issues. Secretary Ross has been known to take 1-2 meetings per week with space companies, and is in constant discussions with his senior staff about space issues. He believes space is the next frontier for commerce, creating entirely new markets and economic activities that will make today’s $330 billion space economy look small by comparison.
The Secretary has visited multiple space industry facilities, attended two launches at the Cape, and delivered keynotes at the Space Symposium and other major space industry events. He is also a successful businessman who understands the needs of American companies in terms of capital financing, regulatory relief, and economic data. As such, Secretary Ross has become a key member of the revived National Space Council, advocating for the interests of the commercial space sector.
His strategic plan for the Department of Commerce, published in January, puts space front and center with Objective 1.1: “Expand Commercial Space Activities.” To do this, Secretary Ross has raised the profile of the Office of Space Commerce and proposed to expand it into a space commerce administration or bureau reporting directly to him.
Under existing authorities, my office is stepping up our interaction with all the bureaus I mentioned earlier, as well as Secretary Ross’s staff, convening weekly meetings of what we call the DOC space team. The team leverages the breadth of our resources to take a whole-of-Commerce approach to the challenges of growing the American space economy and ensuring that the United States remains the flag of choice for commercial space companies.
But closer coordination is just a first step in the roadmap that Secretary Ross envisions for the Department. He wants to expand the Office of Space Commerce to become a one-stop shop for policy and regulatory support to the U.S. commercial space industry. Earlier this year, the National Space Council endorsed that idea, and President Trump included it in his Space Policy Directive-2 for Streamlining Regulations on Commercial Use of Space.
If approved by Congress, the Office of Space Commerce along with the remote sensing licensing office will move out of NOAA, where they are currently hosted, and into an elevated position within the Office of the Secretary. Secretary Ross believes consolidating these offices under a space commerce bureau, headed by an Assistant Secretary for Space Commerce, will enhance our ability to serve our constituents and streamline regulatory requirements and processes.
Space Policy Directive-2
Regulatory reform is a major theme of this Administration, as reflected by Space Policy Directive-2. SPD-2 calls for space regulations to be reviewed and revised in three major areas: launch & re-entry, remote sensing, and export controls. The latter two are licensed by the Commerce Department.
Our goal is to establish licensing frameworks that are streamlined, less burdensome, and flexible enough to adapt with the pace of modern innovation. For example, we are looking to apply performance-based standards vs. prescriptive system descriptions that are fixed in time. We want to stay on top of technological trends, so we can anticipate future applications and think about them proactively, instead of reacting at the time of application, which delays the process. As Secretary Ross has said, we want to be a facilitator of space commerce that applies insight and foresight, not just oversight.
Let me briefly address what Commerce is doing in its two space licensing areas.
For remote sensing, NOAA issues licenses based largely on the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, a 25 year old law written before any U.S. commercial remote sensing system even existed. Over the years, those regulations have been updated incrementally, but the fundamental presumption is still that every remote sensing system is a spy telescope pointed at Earth, and therefore a threat to our national security.
That is simply not the case today—we have webcams strapped to rocket stages, cubesats built out of GoPro’s and iPhones, and proposed lunar landers that need to see the surface of the Moon. Believe it or not, all these cameras are currently captured and bound by NOAA’s remote sensing regulations, simply because they are “capable” of imaging the Earth. This is a ludicrous situation that wastes time and resource for both American businesses and the government, while doing little for national security.
Going forward, we know there will be satellite servicing missions that use cameras to guide rendezvous and proximity operations, space situational awareness sensors for monitoring the space environment, and live high-resolution video broadcasting from space. I can easily imagine a future where, just like every cellphone, every spacecraft has a camera—for self-inspection, marketing, or other purposes. Our current regulatory framework—requiring interagency scrutiny of every license application on a case-by-case basis—is ill-equipped to handle the tidal wave of use cases and license requests headed our way.
So, earlier this summer, NOAA announced plans for a clean sheet rewrite of its remote sensing regulations and requested public comments on a number of ideas under consideration. One important idea is to sort license applications into distinct categories, some of which would get expedited reviews under a presumption of approval, since their capabilities fall below the thresholds of concern to national security. The comment period closed August 28, and based on the feedback received, NOAA is working to publish a draft rule in the very near future.
To be clear, while there are bills in Congress proposing to modify our licensing authorities in this area, NOAA’s proposed rule will be based on existing statute.
Moving to export controls, the Departments of Commerce and State are developing recommendations to the National Space Council on updates to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, that would benefit the space industry.
Four years ago, the government implemented a paradigm shift in satellite export controls, moving the vast majority of space-related items from State to Commerce jurisdiction, where the licensing and compliance burden is much lower. We also eliminated the rule that said having a single ITAR-controlled screw on your satellite would flip the entire satellite to ITAR jurisdiction. You can read all about it in this free handbook that Tim helped me write last year. I brought a few copies, but you can also download it at space.commerce.gov.
That was satellite export control reform, which didn’t do much for the folks who want to export launch vehicles. This next review of the U.S. Munitions List includes both Category XV, which controls spacecraft, and Category IV, which controls launch vehicles.
We have heard from the commercial spaceflight industry that they need relief from the current controls that treat their suborbital vehicles—designed to transport passengers and cargo—as missiles. They have asked for changes that will enable them to operate like airlines, flying to and from other countries without an ITAR license for every flight. We have raised this within the interagency working group on space export control reform, and I believe the topic will be included in their recommendations to the Space Council.
So, remote sensing and export controls—those are the regulatory areas that Commerce is working to update under SPD-2. There is an additional task for Commerce in that directive, and that is to prepare a report on improving the global competitiveness of the U.S. space sector through radio frequency spectrum policies, regulation, and U.S. activities at the ITU. We are preparing that report now, and while I can’t discuss the content, I can say we recognize the importance of spectrum as the lifeblood for all commercial satellites and the need to protect the satellite bands from interference and encroachment.
Space Policy Directive-3
Moving from SPD-2 to SPD-3, we come to the elephant in the room, which is Commerce’s new role in space situational awareness and space traffic management.
Signed in June, Space Policy Directive-3 is the first National Space Traffic Management Policy, and it tasks the Department of Commerce to provide government-derived basic SSA data and STM services to the public. Vice President Pence and Secretary Ross previewed this aspect of the policy at the Space Symposium in April, and we have been inundated with inquiries and offers of assistance ever since.
To be clear up front, the Department of Defense will continue to collect SSA information using its assets, including the future Space Fence. DOD must do so to protect our nation from space and missile threats. None of that is going to change.
What we at the Commerce Department have been assigned to take over is the customer service interface for sharing DOD’s SSA information with commercial satellite operators and other civilian users. As the friend-of-business department, we are better equipped to provide customer support that meets the needs of industry. That is not a slight to DOD, which has done an admirable job providing SSA and STM services to date, but commercial customer support is clearly outside their mission scope. They want us to take this responsibility off their shoulders, so they can focus their defense resources on securing the nation.
With each passing month, the number of commercial satellites and satellite constellations being announced goes up and up. DOD currently tracks some 1,886 satellites in space. If the commercial announcements are to be believed, that number could quadruple or more within the next decade. It’s a combination of cubesats, which are being launched by the dozen, and mega-constellations being developed by the likes of Boeing, OneWeb, SpaceX, and even Facebook.
In addition to live satellites, DOD tracks over 20,000 pieces of orbital debris. A huge amount of those pieces—over 5,000—can be attributed to just two events: the Chinese ASAT test in 2007 and the Iridium-Cosmos collision in 2009. Clearly, space commerce has no sustainable future if we do not prevent additional collisions in space.
Fortunately, there is widespread recognition of this fact and a willingness to take action, as reflected by the Presidential directive. SPD-3 is a comprehensive policy establishing nine goals that will maintain U.S. leadership in this area. Of those nine goals, the Department of Commerce has been assigned to lead or co-lead the efforts in seven of them. These include developing a new construct for disseminating government SSA to the public, encouraging U.S. commercial leadership in this area, and improving SSA data interoperability to enable greater data sharing. We are drawing upon resources at NIST, the patent office, and of course our interagency partners to pursue these efforts.
In particular, we are working hand-in-glove with DOD to ensure a seamless transition as we handoff the SSA data provider role from DOD to DOC. For the near term, we anticipate having DOC employees trained up at Vandenberg AFB on how to perform the functions that DOD staff perform, and work side-by-side to provide the same level of service offered today. While that goes on, we are looking to establish our own service center at a DOC facility.
We are also talking with commercial providers of SSA and STM, some of whom may soon have operational capabilities rivaling those of DOD. We want to see how we can leverage those commercial capabilities to enhance our services to the public. We also may want to certify them to meet government standards so that there can be a competitive commercial market for the provision of SSA data and STM services.
When we talk about space traffic management, we’re not really talking about being the traffic cops of space—directing satellites to turn left or right. We envision STM more like how our National Weather Service operates, providing alerts and warnings so that individuals can decide how to respond to inbound hazards. The analogy goes further, because we will need to ingest and process a wide variety of SSA data inputs into our models, just like the weather service does, including data from government systems, foreign partners, and the private sector. And one of our goals is to stimulate commercial activity in this area, just as NOAA’s free distribution of weather data enables a multi-billion commercial industry of weather apps, TV networks, and value added services catering to insurance companies, oil rigs, fishing boats, etc.
This is a huge new responsibility we are taking on, and one that is more operational in nature than the Office of Space Commerce’s current role of policy coordination. The stakes are high, and so are expectations. But the Department of Commerce is up to the challenge. We are executing a similar responsibility in the area of weather. And in fact, back in early days of aviation, the Department of Commerce housed the nation’s original Bureau of Air Commerce that set flight safety standards, certified aircraft, and licensed pilots to promote stability and growth in the nascent aviation industry. Our proposed bureau of space commerce is looking to do the same kind of thing for satellites in space.
So I’ve just given you a firehose of information, but hopefully what you take away from it all is that:
1) The Department of Commerce is, indeed, very much involved with space;
2) We have a Secretary of Commerce who wants to do even more to promote commercial activity in space; and
3) We have a President and National Space Council who are tasking him to do so in many different ways, and we are marching to those orders as fast as we can.
This is certainly an exciting time to be at the Department of Commerce, and in the space industry, which is driving so much new innovation and economic activity in the United States. We look forward to working with you, our industry constituents, to better serve and advocate for commercial space interests within the federal government and internationally.
Thank you for your attention this morning, thanks again for the invitation, and I look forward to answering your questions.