STM Remarks from Global Satellite Servicing Forum

On November 8, 2018, Kevin O’Connell delivered a keynote address on space traffic management at the 2018 Global Satellite Servicing Forum (GSSF) organized in Washington, DC, by the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS). Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Kevin O’Connell, and I’m the new Director of the Office of Space Commerce at the Department of Commerce. This is such an exciting time for the space industry, and in particular an exciting time for the satellite servicing industry. I’m giving a talk in Houston on behalf of Secretary Ross at the end of this month, and the theme is “How We Get to the $T Space Economy.” While I don’t want to give all of the ideas away, this industry segment stands to fundamentally change the economics of space and be a key enabler of that $1T space economy. I hope that your presence here, at CONFERS, marks the first of what will be many more such discussions on RPO and satellite servicing, and how you will enable other space capabilities. Thank you so much for allowing me to speak here today.

I have just returned from the #EUSpace for Business conference in Graz, Austria, hosted by the European Council and the European Space Policy Institute. There, I spoke about space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM) in the context of a broader discussion about changing European business models for space on topics like investment and insurance. The conference highlighted the increasingly global nature of the space industry, and the international policy and regulatory uncertainties that your companies and your stakeholders face. (The role of standards was an important part of that conversation as well.) There is still a lot of work to be done to see the full economic and security benefits, but this forum, and the guiding principles of CONFERS, are steps in the right direction.

At Commerce, our office is charged with “fostering the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the U.S. commercial space industry.” We are approaching that mandate through a combination of advocacy, deregulatory action, industry engagement, and other activities.

Where do we see that $T space economy emerging? We are seeing disruption of “traditional” commercial markets in space communications, remote sensing, and weather technology. Entirely new capabilities like rendezvous proximity operations, satellite servicing, debris removal, space tourism, resource mining and other areas are fast emerging in the market. We are committed, within a “whole of government” approach with our federal agency partners, to create a policy and regulatory environment where the space industry can reach and even exceed its projected potential, resulting in a variety of benefits in space and on Earth.

Let me stay on this point for just a moment. I’m often asked, especially by our international partners, what “whole of government” means. Starting with the reestablishment of the National Space Council, it means that we work collectively on these issues, we elevate issues that we can’t agree upon, knowing that, every few months, we will be sitting, as we did a couple of weeks ago, before Vice President Mike Pence and the National Space Council to report on what we’ve been able to accomplish. That imparts a speed to bureaucratic process that isn’t often seen on such complex issues.

We spent a few minutes this morning with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. The Secretary is one of the commercial space industry’s greatest advocates and is working to ensure that the Department of Commerce provides the kind of support that the space industry needs in order to thrive. Secretary Ross is working to elevate our office into a a “one-stop-shop” for space policy and regulatory functions. Currently proposed as a new Bureau within the Department, the office will continue to leverage the internal Department of Commerce “Space Team” and other activities as it pursues deregulation. The commercial space industry faces many different kinds of regulatory pressures like export controls, spectrum issues, licensing, others. As many of you know, we are actively working on actively on these issues, as are our other U.S. government partners on issues related to launch and space debris mitigation.

Let’s stay on this issue of regulation for a minute. I’d like to commend you for the important work that you are doing through CONFERS. You will hear more this afternoon from some of my U.S. government colleagues and others on the detailed policy and regulation aspects of the CONFERS activities. I have already had the chance to read the CONFERS guidelines and principles for this meeting — key will be to driving out specific standards and best practices that can enable the entire industry segment. I know that there are many details and definitions yet to be worked out, but know that it is very important work.

For many existing commercial space technologies, we already are aware of the issues that require reform or modernization in the regulatory process. What’s different in this case, of course, here, is that you are trying to anticipate standards and best practices in advance — or maybe parallel to — the emergence of the market. This can be hard, and even controversial, but is very important. I wish we had similar activities like CONFERS for a whole host of other emerging space activities.

Meanwhile, the market is changing, as new capabilities come to market. We need to be looking as much to the potential needs of new commercial space participants, and how they might evolve, as the basis for additional standards and what will certainly be new “best practices”. The role of time and speed are very important here.

Why? As new technologies begin to reach the market, industry standards and best practices are the fastest way to ensure global adoption of safe flight practices and responsible operational standards. In the increasingly complex space environment, standards and best practices will provide governments, owners and operators with the reliability and predictability they need. They need a level of operational confidence and allows for long-term planning and investment in the commercial space industry. We need more groups like CONFERS to actively address the challenges, and more importantly the opportunities, created by new space technologies.

The creation of a forum such as CONFERS is an important step for the satellite servicing community, and kudos to DARPA for sponsoring this activity. There is broad support for rendezvous-proximity operations and on-orbit servicing, especially as they are service offerings that change the economics of space and enable space commerce. CONFERS leverages industry perspectives; sometimes, in my early time at Commerce, we have heard companies say “we’ll just wait for the government to tell us what the regulations are” – I couldn’t imagine a more naive viewpoint. That’s a detrimental perspective for both industry and government. When it comes to regulation, industry increasingly understands or can anticipate government concerns and can work to mitigate them within their business models. Viewpoints of a collection of companies, as you have here, is stronger than input from individual companies. Proactive participation by industry and academia will speed up the licensing and regulatory processes and allow for new technologies and services to reach the marketplace faster and begin to generate revenue. This is a win-win for industry and government.

This approach pertains to other space commerce activities as well. We’re trying to harness this kind of effort on SSA/STM, and that has its own complexities. At AMOS, on SSA/STM, I cited an Aerospace study that talked about the lack of universally adopted standards, prompting us to develop different categories where specific, relevant guidelines might exist. We could imagine specific categories like launch and insertion, cubesats, mega-constellations, and de-orbit, to name a few, as candidates for focused consideration of standards and best practices. There are certainly others, such as robotics and ones related to human spaceflight.

It is never too early to begin this process, particularly in an industry where the stakes are remarkably high. As everyone in this room is aware, one large failure has the potential to do significant harm to the industry, and both current and future space activities. Your efforts here reflect a recognition of your role in ensuring lasting impact on the space economy.

Forums like this one also create the basis for international partnership and help improve transparency in the space economy. My message in Austria was an assurance of room for partnerships on SSA/STM, and the international representation here reflects the same. Regulatory transparency will be essential to creating a global space economy with open and fair competition, which is a key path to innovation. Stakeholder-driven, transparent policy and regulatory development will provide commercial space operators stable requirements that can verify risk and justify significant investment. It will facilitate productive partnerships between governments and industries and potentially mitigate risks for new business ventures.

Practices that are less than transparent will limit market competition, and ultimately slow innovation. They also have the potential to create long-term harm to the space economy. Here, the United States is looking not only to our traditional allies and partners in space, but to any space-faring partner willing to help create an operational environment that promotes safety, sustainability, and commercial enterprise. To reiterate a point that made in Europe, we welcome all participants who share the vision of a free, innovative, prosperous, and peaceful space economy.

CONFERS has recognized that the satellite servicing industry does not exist within a void in the greater space industry. I noticed the rich nature of discussions here today on issues like insurance, investment, manufacturing, and others. These services are critical to satellite servicing, and to all aspects of the space economy. At the Department, we’re working to bring together elements of the space economy value chain to better understand their interactions and how they affect adjacent markets. We’re currently shaping an event around these issues to be hosted at the Department in very early 2019. Responsible, sustainable space commerce will also rely, to some extent, on “whole-of-industry” approaches as well.

To say it another way, the Administration’s view of the future in space is overwhelmingly commercial. This vision will come with the realities of commerce, ranging from the nature of competition — there will be winners and losers — as well as the wide range of talent that will be needed in the space economy. A successful commercial space industry will require more than just the brightest scientific and technical minds in the world. Business skills, policy and legal expertise, visionary leadership, and capable management will all be essential to create an industry with lasting commercial and economic potential. Recruitment and education efforts need to target these skill sets as well as traditional science and engineering.

In closing, I fully believe that the commercial space industry has huge untapped economic potential for exploration and to improve our lives on earth. Your efforts here, as an industry group, will ultimately play a key role in determining the magnitude of success that the satellite servicing industry achieves. It will also require the hard work and efficiency of government, especially in dealing with exciting new space concepts. The Administration, the Department of Commerce, and our sister agencies are excited about this vision of the $T space economy and will work to continue American leadership in space.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.