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Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Hearing: Government Promotion of Safety and Innovation in the New Space Economy

U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Subcommittee of Space and Science

“Government Promotion of Safety and Innovation in the New Space Economy”

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Watch the Hearing

Introduction

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Space and Science held a hearing entitled “Government Promotion of Safety and Innovation in the New Space Economy” on Wednesday, December 13, 2023. The hearing examined the federal government’s role in ensuring the safety, viability, and economic competitiveness of commercial space activities and discussed regulatory proposals regarding mission authorization. Witness testimonies paid particular focus to recent draft legislation proposed by the National Space Council (NSpC) in November that aims to distribute mission authorization authority between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce. More information.

Key Highlights

  • NASA, DOT, DOC, and the DOD are committed to maintaining a robust interagency relationship and are committed to collaborating with one another to ensure the application of consistent and flexible regulatory standards that promote safety and innovation in the evolving space sector.
  • The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce have endorsed the NSpC’s proposal related to mission authorization. NASA and the DOD collaborated closely with the Council on the development of the proposal and expressed satisfaction with the progress on this crucial issue.
  • Col. Pam Melroy expressed that NASA does not support an extension of the federal moratorium on commercial spaceflight safety regulations, also known as the regulatory “learning period,” which is set to expire in early 2024.
  • The Senate is actively working on bipartisan legislation to introduce a comprehensive approach to mission authorization.

Witnesses

  • Col. Pam Melroy, Deputy Administrator, NASA
  • Mr. Kelvin Coleman, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Mr. Richard Dalbello, Director, Office of Space Commerce (OSC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Commerce (DOC)
  • Mr. John Hill, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space and Missile Defense, Department of Defense (DOD)

Opening Statements

Subcommittee Chairwoman Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) 

In her opening statement, Chairwoman Sinema emphasized the need for the Federal government to address mission authorization, calling for the establishment of a regulatory framework that removes unnecessary burdens and provides necessary clarity for the commercial space sector. Specifically, she stressed the need to “keep mission authorization fully distinct from mission success.” Chairwoman Sinema also highlighted the NSpC proposed draft legislation, the  “Authorization and Supervision of Novel Private Sector Space Activities Act,” which seeks to divide mission authorization authority between the DOT and DOC. While pleased that the Administration is working on this crucial issue, she voiced reservations about the proposal, citing “numerous ambiguities, new undefined terms and broad grants of open-ended authority.” She shared that the NSpC was invited to testify at the hearing but declined to attend.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Eric Schmitt (R-MO) 

In his opening statement, Ranking Member Schmitt echoed similar sentiments regarding the pressing need for regulatory clarity, especially as the U.S. is engaged in a new space race to the lunar surface with China. In addition, he expressed disappointment at the NSpC’s absence at the hearing, stating the importance of their presence to address questions regarding their legislative proposal.

Witness Testimony

Col. Pam Melroy, Deputy Administrator, NASA

In her testimony, Col. Melroy discussed NASA’s deliberate efforts to enhance partnerships with the commercial space industry, underscoring that as NASA becomes more reliant on commercial space services, “the success of NASA is inextricably linked to the success of the industry.” In this context, she emphasized the critical importance of getting the “authorization and supervision regulatory regime right.” She stated that NASA is “pleased” that NSpC has submitted a recommendation to Congress, proposing an extension of the authorities of the DOC and DOT with respect to novel space activities. Read the Full Statement.

Mr. Kelvin Coleman, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, FAA, DOT

In his testimony, Mr. Coleman emphasized that the DOT, particularly the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), is committed to ensuring that the U.S. remains the preeminent commercial space partner of choice. He highlighted that with the support of Congress, AST expanded its workforce, hiring an additional 33 new employees, bringing the office’s total staff to 147 individuals. Furthermore, Mr. Coleman expressed that the FAA “equivocally stands in support” of the White House proposal, stating that the expansion of the DOT’s licensing authority to include all human spaceflight missions is a “logical extension” of the Department’s existing mandate and institutional expertise. Mr. Coleman asserted that the proposed regulatory framework would ensure consistent oversight throughout a mission and allow operators to apply for a single license to conduct all transportation activities, including launch, in-space transportation, and retry. Moreover, Mr. Coleman detailed ongoing efforts to streamline the FAA’s commercial space regulatory framework, including Part 450. He explained that full implementation of Part 450 in March 2026 will reduce the frequency at which operators will need to seek approval with the office. He also provided updates on the Human Space Flight Occupant Safety Aerospace Rulemaking Committee (Human Space Flight SPARC) and the Financial Responsibility Aerospace Rulemaking Committee (Financial Responsibility SPARC). These committees are expected to issue recommendations in the summer of 2024 and early 2024, respectively. Read the Full Statement.

Mr. Richard Dalbello, Director, OSC, NOAA, DOC

In his testimony, Mr. Dalbello highlighted the pivotal role of OSC as a regulator for remote sensing activities, emphasizing the office’s commitment to implementing a regulatory approach that is “easily understandable, provides licensing responses rapidly, and yet is responsive to national security and other critical U.S. interests.” Specifically, he highlighted updates to the office’s licensing processes, which include recent regulatory relief and notable reductions in timelines, emphasizing that processing times have been streamlined from 48 days to 14 days. Mr. Dalbello further stated that OSC “fully endorsed” the NSpC legislative proposal, explaining that the proposal builds on the strengths of the office, DOT, and NASA. With respect to the expansion of the DOC’s authorities under the proposal, Mr. Dalbello underscored that the OSC is committed to maintaining a transparent rulemaking process that adheres to “strict and quick timelines” and is based on “a presumption of approval” wherever applicable. In addition, Mr. Dalbello provided updates on OSC’s space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic coordination (STC) system, known as the “Traffic Coordination Systems for Space” (TraCSS).  In short, he shared that OSC is adopting a phased approach for TraCSS to facilitate a smooth transition of SSA and STC responsibilities from DOD. Importantly, he underscored that the NSpC legislative proposal would grant the DOC the necessary authorities to fully implement and scale the TraCSS program. Mr. Dalbello also hinted that the NSpC’s proposal would empower OSC to open communication channels with nations operating similar SSA systems that the U.S. “has not traditionally coordinated” with. Read the Full Statement.

Mr. John Hill, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space and Missile Defense, DOD

In his testimony, Mr. Hill highlighted that the DOD does not function as a regulatory agency but has consistently collaborated with its civil agency counterparts to ensure that national security considerations are reflected in any regulatory updates. He noted that the NSpC’s legislative proposal continues this collaborative approach by requiring consultation with the Secretary of Defense on matters of national security. The proposal also supports the transition of SSA responsibilities from the DOD to the DOC. He explained that this transfer of responsibilities to a civil agency would allow the DOD to concentrate its attention on the inherent military aspect of SSA. He stated that the DOD worked alongside its interagency partners to formulate the White House’s proposal and urged Congress to lend its support to the initiative.

Question & Answer 

Mission Authorization Legislation

  • In response to various questions from lawmakers, Mr. Coleman and Dalbello reaffirmed their support for the NSpC’s proposal to divide mission authorization authorities between the DOT and DOC. Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) shared that the Senate is also working on the introduction of bipartisan legislation to “create a modern mission authorization.” In response to a question from Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), Mr. Coleman assured that “there is no situation in which both DOT and DOC will have joint oversight responsibilities for a single activity.” Mr. Dalbello also highlighted that regulation will always require interagency discussion, which is why it is important to outline “strict guidance, strict rules, and strict timelines” to ensure that the commercial sector has clear expectations for receiving timely responses. In this context, Col. Melroy also repeatedly mentioned NASA’s successful working relationship with the FAA on human spaceflight missions, highlighting the FAA’s comprehensive understanding of the business.

FAA Learning Period

  • In response to a question from Ranking Member Schmitt, Col. Melroy asserted that NASA would not prefer to extend the FAA’s regulatory learning period. She expressed concerns that spaceflight participants potentially misunderstand that NASA certifies the safety of private spaceflight missions, whereas, in fact, the agency does not.

Orbital Debris / SSA

  • In response to a question from Sen. Hickenlooper, Col. Melroy thanked the Senator for his leadership on the issue of orbital debris, referencing the ORBITS Act as particularly helpful. In addition, Mr. Dalbello highlighted OSC’s efforts related to SSA and the importance of coordinating SSA systems on an international scale to ensure that all actors are operating safely.

Small Businesses

  • In response to a question from Sen. Hickenlooper, Col. Melroy emphasized that small businesses constitute the “backbone” of the U.S. economy. She highlighted that NASA has increased funding dedicated to small businesses by hundreds of millions of dollars over the last five years. Col. Melroy specifically underscored the crucial role of the NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs in driving this initiative.

Spaceports

  • In response to a question from Sen. Hickenlooper, Mr. Coleman confirmed AST’s commitment to supporting the needs of spaceports in the U.S. He mentioned the establishment of an Office of Spaceports within AST, which is designed to address the infrastructure, policy, and funding needs of the 14 licensed spaceports in the U.S. Additionally, Mr. Coleman noted that AST has had the authority to stand up a spaceports infrastructure matching grants program for several years although Congress has not yet appropriated funds for the program.

An archive of previous hearing coverage is available here.