Remarks from Space Commerce Workshop at NIST Boulder

Remarks from Space Commerce Workshop at NIST Boulder

Kevin O'Connell (holding mic) and six other panelists on stage
On September 12, the Department of Commerce hosted a space commerce workshop at the NIST campus in Boulder, Colorado. The event brought together industry, academia, and federal government organizations to identify key technology and measurement barriers to deploying and safely operating commercial space technology.

NIST Director Walter Copan opened the event, and OSC Director Kevin O’Connell delivered opening remarks. O’Connell also moderated a panel on partnerships with DOC.

Other panels discussed emerging technologies for space commerce, spectrum for space services, models and algorithms for space situational awareness, and managing data for space traffic management.

Learn more about the workshop at

Below are Kevin O’Connell’s remarks as prepared for delivery.

Prepared Remarks of Kevin M. O’Connell
Director, Office of Space Commerce

Good morning everyone, and thank you, Walt, for that kind introduction. Welcome to the first ever Department of Commerce Space Commerce Workshop here in Boulder, Colorado. This is a very timely event, and I’d first like to both thank and congratulate my NIST colleagues for the outstanding lineup of panelists and participants assembled here, as well as on the relevance of topics to be discussed. The partnership between my Office, the Office of Space Commerce, and NIST is just one of many important relationships that we are building across the Department of Commerce on behalf of the U.S. space industry.

Even today, I occasionally get asked “Why the Department of Commerce on space issues, Kevin?” (It’s actually the very first question that Secretary Ross asked me when we first met in early 2018; what I didn’t know at the time was that it was an interview question!) For those that have long been part of the space industry, or studied its history, there has actually been a long-standing view that the Commerce Department should have a strong role in promoting the U.S. space industry. My office, the Office of Space Commerce, was created during the Reagan Administration, when the idea of space commercialization was merely a vision. Today, it is inarguable that this is an industry that is vital to our nation’s security and economic future. And it will have to thrive in highly competitive global markets.

It’s great to be back in Colorado, one of the nation’s fastest growing space states. What is it that you say here, “a mile closer to space than anyone else?” As you will see first hand today, Colorado is a very natural hub for the Commerce Department’s involvement in space commerce, because of the many talents of NIST, NOAA (especially Space Weather Prediction Center), and NTIA, as well as other technical skills. For the Office of Space Commerce, these are extraordinary organizations that we need to leverage as we “foster the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the U.S. commercial space industry.” That’s our broad legal mandate, which we organize into four categories of activity: industry advocacy, streamlining regulation, industry engagement, and activities designed to improve our understanding of the domestic and global space economy.

To give you just a brief flavor of what we’ve done, for example, the Office has sponsored three “summits” — on investment, space insurance, and on the changing nature of space partnerships (the Space Enterprise Summit, in partnership with the State Department). We’re planning one right now on the unique challenges of space start-ups that we hope to announce soon to be held around the time of the International Astronautical Congress. We have worked with some of the Department’s grant making organizations — the Economic Development Administration (EDA) and the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) — to help stimulate unique and new kinds of interest in space commerce, and regularly work with the International Trade Administration (ITA) to understand the barriers and opportunities for U.S. businesses abroad. Continuing innovation and talent are essential to success: the Office routinely hosts companies and entrepreneurs from across the entirety of the U.S. space industry.

Why is this so important? First, because we see space as potentially one of the strongest sources of economic growth over the next couple of decades. The global space economy is estimated at approximately $400B globally, with projections between $1 and $3 trillion dollars by 2040. Commercial space activities are roughly 75% of that market and growing. Second, because we see the growth and diversification of space activities requiring an exceptionally broad range of talent and entrepreneurship that will benefit not only states like Colorado, but every single state across the nation. We will need technical talent — certainly all we can get — but we will also need application developers, economists, artists, teachers, and many others. That’s what the future of space commerce is all about.

We have lots of work to do in order to make this happen. Beyond the Secretary’s direction, the Administration and the National Space Council have focused our efforts in two key areas pertinent to our discussions here today: streamlining and reducing burdensome regulations, and creating a civil system for space traffic management, one which thoroughly includes a rapidly growing number of commercial entities, as well as those of our allies. The space debris and space congestion problem is dangerous and bound to grow more complex even as innovative new commercial space missions emerge. If we don’t move quickly, we could potentially damage large areas of space for an entire generation and create key roadblocks to that trillion dollar space economy.

Let’s spend a few minutes on this: preserving a safe and sustainable operating environment in space is critical to our national interests, those of our allies, and like-minded nations who want to use space for genuine scientific exploration and the enhancement of life on earth. The Commerce Department is a natural home for a commercially focused effort on improving SSA and STM. Why? For commercial industry, the space debris challenge is increasingly an economic challenge: growth and diversification of space commerce is predicated on the notion that companies are able to operate on orbit in a safe and predictable manner.

The Department’s technical talent represented here today stands for itself; we also routinely interact with companies on the “supply” and “demand” side of the SSA/STM equation – the many diverse companies that are coming to market with capabilities that can help mitigate the space debris problem, and, on the other side, the many entrepreneurs and firms that will come to market with capabilities that will drive wholly new demand for SSA/STM services.

What about the traditional DoD role in this area? As reflected in SPD-3 and elsewhere, DoD has other priority missions to tend to, and the current system used for conjunction assessment and other information requires prompt modernization. By ultimately combining the DoD’s “authoritative catalogue” with a wide range of commercially available sensor data, and a wide range of analytics, data management, and visualization tools, we stand an excellent chance of greatly improving our understanding of the space environment, even as it becomes more complex. Current SPD-3 direction tells us to have this done no later than 2024, earlier if possible. Helping mitigate the space debris problem is a key enabler to a whole new slate of commercial space services, whether the creation of new decision aids for satellite operators, rendezvous and proximity operations, active debris removal, space tourism, and others.

Here too, the “whole of Commerce” approach is going to be essential. Every one of the Commerce organizations involved here today holds deep technical skills that we need to leverage to create a more safe and sustainable space environment. NIST’s recognition as a national and global leader in technological standards and best practices will help us evaluate the most helpful standards already developed or in development for space safety; a number of our efforts will involve NIST’s extensive experience with cyber security frameworks. NOAA’s experience in space traffic management on behalf of the largest civil satellite fleet in the world, as well as its experience in space weather, are essential to our efforts. And NTIA is working actively under SPD-3 to help understand how to deal with a very different kind of space debris, radio frequency interference.

Within the Office, within resources, we are beefing up our own skills on SSA/STM with the addition of Mark Mulholland, someone likely known to at least a few of you in this audience, as well as Dr. Diane Howard, an internationally known legal and SSA/STM expert, and Adele Luta, a Presidential Innovation Fellow with relevant space experience. Today, I am pleased to announce that we are in final discussions with your (University of Colorado at Boulder’s) Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) for the assignment of Mr. Edgar Johansson, to our Office. Leveraging these skills and others will be essential to helping “disrupt” the space debris problem, whether dealing with the current space-scape or avoiding the creation of new space debris. One of the things we are starting to turn to, increasingly encouraged by industry, is any needed regulation — light-touch, of course, and based on industry best practices — as the space market evolves and changes.

This is why we are here today: to identify key technology opportunities and challenges to deploying and safely operating commercial space technology. It will require the best of government, industry, and academic thinking. But it is the best way to blaze that path to the trillion dollar space economy. Thank you.