Commerce And SSA

I flew back to London yesterday from Bratislava (cheap non-stop flights from there, compared to Vienna) and I woke up to see that Vice-President Pence has announced a fairly significant policy change:

Space situational awareness data is currently provided by the Defense Department through organizations like the Joint Space Operations Center. The new policy, Pence said, would free up the military “to focus on protecting and defending our national security assets in space” by giving those responsibilities to the Commerce Department.

“This new policy directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense,” Pence said.

The policy will also support partnerships between the government and private organizations for sharing space situational awareness data, technical guidelines and safety standards. “That will help minimize debris and avoid satellite collisions during launch and while in orbit,” he said.

This would not be the first time that Commerce has taken over a potential regulatory role once considered for the FAA. At the National Space Council’s February meeting, the council approved several recommendations, including those that would give Commerce responsibility for licensing “non-traditional” space applications, something the FAA had long been advocating to handle.

There are some interesting implications to this. A little over a third of a century ago, there was a bureaucratic battle over which federal agency would do launch licensing. In a meeting with Ronald Reagan, Transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole made a better case for her department than Malcolm Baldrige, then Secretary of Commerce, did for his, and the DoT got the job, which was later codified in the Commercial Space Launch Act, with the Office of Commercial Space Transportation reporting to the department secretary (first head of it was Courtney Stadd).

In the early 90s, under a “streamlining government initiative,” VP Al Gore demoted the office, putting it under the FAA, something that many (including me) criticized at the time, and for which we have been advocating reversal ever since (including a recommendation in my book). Now it would appear that not only the FAA, but the DoT itself, has lost a turf war (and I don’t mind).

But more interesting to me is the implication for an ultimate U.S. Space Guard. SAA was one of the primary drivers in advocating such an organization, as Jim Bennett described in The New Atlantis. The Coast Guard was at one time under the Department of Commerce, and the seed of this new organization could in fact grow into a more comprehensive one, perhaps with constabulary powers, and even over time uniforms and an academy.