STM Remarks from #EUSpace for Business Conference

On November 6, 2018, Kevin O’Connell delivered a keynote address on space traffic management at the #EUSpace for Business conference in Graz, Austria. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Jean-Jacques, thank you so much for that kind introduction. Thank you as well to the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, and the European Space Policy Institute. It is a pleasure to be engaged in Europe once again on space issues, and especially on space commerce issues. Last year while I was still in the private sector, I participated in an engaging discussion hosted by Dr. Xavier Pasco in Paris on the foundations of space innovation. A lot has happened in the United States since then, so I welcome the chance today to discuss how innovation is driving new policy approaches to address space opportunities and challenges. This conference takes place at an incredible time where a convergence of leadership, finance, and technology has created a pace of change that requires new thinking about the respective roles of government and industry. I am very impressed with the quality of the dialogue here.

For those who don’t know me, my name is Kevin O’Connell and I am the Director of the Office of Space Commerce within the U.S. Department of Commerce. The global space economy is valued today at about $400 billion, with projections to exceed $1T by 2040. Some estimates are substantially higher as we see disruption of “traditional” commercial markets in communications, remote sensing, even weather, while wholly new capabilities in space tourism, debris removal, resource mining, and other areas emerge in the market. The role of my office within the Department of Commerce is to “foster conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the U.S. commercial space industry.” We are focused on using a number of approaches to do this, including advocacy, regulatory reform, industry engagement and others.

While I’m at it, let me bring greetings from my boss, Secretary Wilbur Ross, our Secretary of Commerce. As some of you already know, Secretary Ross has an incredible enthusiasm for space and space commerce issues. Some of his recent European stops have included discussions about investment and cooperation on space issues. These discussions come at a pivotal time for understanding how governments and industries will cooperate on issues ranging from national government supervision and regulation to understanding the consequences of the rapidly changing space environment for safety, security, and economic competitiveness.

As some of you have already observed, our Department has taken on a large number of responsibilities under what we call Space Policy Directive 2, related to the deregulation of commercial space activities, and Space Policy Directive 3, on space traffic management. These take place in the context of an Administration emphasis on space that has widespread importance – for security, economics, and innovation – as well as explicitly recognizes that there are an increasing number of non-governmental actors whose views about the future of space matter. Government, to paraphrase Vice President Mike Pence, is no longer a landlord for industry but a partner.

Why Commerce, you may ask? Obviously, because of our pro-business stance. But not only that. Also because, through NOAA, we fly the largest fleet of operational, civilian satellites in the world; because of our International Trade Administration that evaluates trade practices and promotes space commerce; because of organizations like NIST that advance rigorous standards for space and other technology areas. Working across the Department, we are able to leverage a wide range of capabilities and perspectives. There are other reasons as well.

To do our part to advance commercial space industry, the U.S. is in the process of revolutionizing our space regulatory regime and licensing processes. Key will be to create regulatory requirements that adapt flexibly to market developments. For example, various stakeholders within the U.S. government are reviewing a proposed rule for commercial remote sensing regulation. When finalized, the new rule will simplify the licensing process and allow many new commercial entrants to bring their products and services to market faster. For more nascent space technologies, we are working to create a regulatory environment that is flexible enough to accommodate rapid technical and business innovation. Our goal is to create a “one-stop shop” for commercial businesses at Commerce. A permissive, though not permission-less, regulatory regime that focuses on protection of life, property, and national security will be key to creating an economic environment where commercial space operators can thrive.

Transparency in space regulation, both foreign and domestic, will be essential to creating a predictable and reliable space operating environment. The U.S. Government will strive for transparency when establishing or reforming regulatory requirements, and we urge our foreign counterparts to do the same. Stakeholder-driven, transparent policy development will provide commercial space operators stable requirements that can verify risk and justify significant investment. It will also facilitate productive partnerships between industry and government that can decrease uncertainty risk for new business ventures.

Simply put, America’s vision of humanity’s future in the space frontier is overwhelmingly commercial. In this context, the government will no longer play the lone operator or customer, but as a partner in and customer of the growing commercial space sector. Through the promotion and regulation of free commerce in space, the United States seeks to enable a brand new industry segment that will create global economic and scientific benefits. By establishing a space operating environment characterized by reliability, stability, and regulatory certainty, our governments can become a better promoter and consumer of commercial space products. Especially where space-related technology and business developments take place at rapid speed, this approach will allow the government to leverage technologies that have been their exclusive purview while creating substantial economic benefits on Earth with second and third order effects.

The U.S. Government, along with other space-faring nations worldwide, will, of course, conduct national security activities in space. The United States also will seek to protect and defend American and allied national space interests. But neither the U.S. nor the global markets see national governments as the lone players in the space environment. Make no mistake about it, governments still play an important role – in supervision, authorization, and regulation – as well as sponsoring some of the cutting-edge research for science, safety and security, while helping to validate others that come from academia and the commercial markets. For the commercial space economy to thrive, commercial and government space operations must be able to co-exist and commercial interests must be given full consideration under domestic and international legal structures. Many countries seek this kind of innovation: open and free international space commerce will foster competition and ensure continuing technical and business innovation.

About Space Situational Awareness and Space Traffic Management

Let’s turn now to the main purpose of my talk: space situational awareness and space traffic management. The space debris problem is an urgent one, and ripe for disruption. Why?

  • Because it creates significant physical and operational risk to all space systems, including human spaceflight;
  • Because our understanding of the spaceflight safety hazards such as orbital debris remains relatively limited, and our ability to warn spacecraft owner operators accurately even more so;
  • Because new space concepts from cubesats to mega-constellations to maneuverable satellites are likely to complicate this situation, and
  • Because a burgeoning industry, or perhaps different industry segments, stand ready to help innovate rapidly in the face of these challenges. A diverse set of capabilities ranging from new forms of space sensing to visualization to analytic tools designed to increase accuracy are already in the market. Some of these are coming from within the space community, but, to a point made yesterday, some are coming from within adjacent markets. Beyond, a whole new slate of commercial service offerings are being envisioned as the basis for newer markets in satellite servicing and space debris removal.

The Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive 3 tasked the Department of Commerce with establishing a civil system for SSA and STM, a function currently undertaken by the Department of Defense. Today, the DoD provides SSA and STM data and conjunction warnings to commercial entities, partners, and allies worldwide. While the DoD will continue to maintain the U.S. Government’s “authoritative catalog” of space objects, and continue military-to-military SSA and STM engagement, the Department of Commerce will assume responsibility for providing basic SSA and STM data to commercial space stakeholders free of direct user fees.

Again, you may ask, why Commerce? The Department is responsible, as our Secretary would say, for releasing over 40% of the data that the American people receive from the U.S. government, whether economic data, weather data, or others. Starting with DoD’s authoritative catalog, the new civil SSA system will incorporate newly available SSA and STM data and analytic capabilities in an “open architecture data repository” that will also allow industry and academia to rapidly experiment, innovate, and critically evaluate innovative new capabilities. It will allow for incorporation of state-of-the-art technologies in artificial intelligence, analytics, and data visualization to create new and advanced SSA/STM services that will improve certainty for satellite owner operators.

This creates the basis for international partnerships and data sharing. Technical and analytic contributions to advanced SSA and STM products are not and will not be limited to American participants. Given the urgency of the problem, we will need new ideas and innovative approaches on how to support the growing commercial space industry and create a stable operating environment. Aside from capabilities, we also need an understanding of the SSA/STM needs of future satellite operators as they pursue dramatically different missions and services in space. A better understanding of the space environment will improve safety and predictability for both government and commercial actors worldwide, in the process changing the economics of space and enabling space commerce for all.

Another important dimension of improved SSA/STM is the establishment of technical standards and operational best practices. Rather than seeking universal a priori space standards, which are generally hard to come by, we see the evolution of groups of space standards in focused areas like cubesats, mega-constellations, and end-of life/deorbit practices. Currently, under SPD-3, NASA is working to update the U.S. Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices; we encourage all space-faring nations to address this issue in order to protect the long-term sustainability of space activities and to limit risk to all government and commercial stakeholders. Internationally accepted best practices and standards will be essential for new technologies and space missions like satellite servicing. For these emerging markets, standards and best practices will differentiate trusted commercial services providers from actors engaging in potentially dangerous or harmful maneuvers.

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS) in Vienna has served as a productive multilateral forum for achieving international consensus on space issues. Earlier this year. COPUOS’ Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) and its Working Group on Long-Term Sustainability (LTS) of Outer Space Activities reached consensus on 21 LTS guidelines for space activities. The United States commends COPUOS for its excellent work, and believes that it will continue to serve as a key forum for developing international consensus on space principles. We support the continued use of COPUOS and other international forums to advance the sustainable and peaceful use of space.

For more cutting edge technologies and services such as on-orbit manufacturing, space tourism, and space mining, broader legal structures will need to be developed in order to protect property rights, ensure civilian safety, and establish sustainable commercial practices. These frameworks should allow for innovation while protecting core interests, including the values that have driven U.S. and Europe’s space programs for six decades.

International engagement and participation, both government and commercial, is essential to creating standards and best practices that will create stability and protect the interests of space operators. Here, the United States is looking not only to our traditional allies and partners in space, but to any space-faring nation or foreign entity willing to work in an open and transparent manner to help create an operational environment that promotes safety, sustainability, and commercial enterprise. We welcome all participants who share the vision of a free, innovative, prosperous, and peaceful space economy.

In closing, space is not, and has never been, the domain of any single nation. As space commerce increases, and more countries establish national space programs, the protection and maintenance of the space environment becomes a more urgent and collective responsibility. We owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to our planet to ensure that space remains an open domain where commercial and government operators alike can pursue economic, scientific, and security advancement. The commercial space industry has huge economic potential and it is the job of governments to create a regulatory and security environment in which the industry can thrive, whether for exploration or for improving conditions here on earth.

This conference comes not a moment too soon, and we look forward to continued international engagement to promote and secure space commerce.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.