WASHINGTON — Commercial space issues, including supporting emerging markets and regulating them, emerged as major priorities at a meeting of a National Space Council advisory group.
The Users’ Advisory Group (UAG) of the council met Feb. 23 for the first time since the White House announced a new membership roster for the group in December. The meeting was largely focused on planning by the UAG and its six subcommittees on topics ranging from national security to education.
Those discussions, as well as testimony it received from current and former government officials, suggested that commercial space topics will be a major focus for the committee as it looks at the industry’s growing capabilities and the problems it faces.
“What we don’t talk about enough, significantly and in detail, is the relationship between the U.S. Space Force and all of national security space and the commercial sector,” said Gen. David D. Thompson, vice chief of space operations for the Space Force, in remarks to the committee.
He devoted most of his comments to the UAG on that interplay between the national security and commercial sectors in space, from launch to new capabilities like in-space servicing. “We are seeing what is truly an explosion of commercial services and capabilities that we’re trying to leverage rapidly, perhaps not rapidly enough,” he said.
Thompson was followed by Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator, who discussed the “transformational” role of the International Space Station in stimulating commercial space activities like cargo and crew transportation. Transitioning from the ISS to commercial stations, though, presents new challenges.
“We are very well aware that the lack of an agency with on-orbit authority to act as a regulator is a future barrier to commercial low Earth orbit space stations,” she said, a role she said was not for NASA. “We cannot be responsible for all activities on a commercial space station, and I hope the UAG will take an active interest in this issue.”
“I feel like my work has already been done for me, between the comments of Gen. Thompson and Deputy Administrator Melroy,” said Rich DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce, who also testified before the UAG. He focused on the office’s work developing a civil space traffic management system as well as its potential role in mission authorization of other commercial space activities.
“We’ve got a bunch of stuff coming at us,” he said. “The regulatory regime isn’t really set up to handle all that yet.” He separated a near-term problem of setting up a mission authorization regime with a long-term issue of how to “reimagine regulation” to make it less cumbersome, something he said might take a generation to achieve.
Some of the UAG subcommittees said they planned to address commercial space issues in the work plans they discussed later at the meeting. “We’re at a high point with ever-increasing opportunities for commerce and there’s a need for regulations to help industry,” said Lance Bush, president and chief executive of the Challenger Center and chair of the UAG’s exploration and discovery subcommittee. That included, he said, intellectual property protections for commercial activities on space stations.
Eric Fanning, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, said his subcommittee on economic development and the industrial base would tackle a range of commercial space issues, from international trade and support small businesses to addressing supply chain issues and space sustainability.
The subcommittees didn’t give timelines for their analyses of these and other issues, and the meeting concluded without announcing a schedule for the next meeting. The UAG meeting wrapped up earlier than originally announced so that some members of the committee could go to another, unspecified event.
A White House official, speaking on background, said later in the day that UAG members met with Vice President Kamala Harris, who is chair of the National Space Council, for a discussion about the UAG meeting. The White House confirmed that in a statement late in the day, stating that Harris “laid out her vision for the work of the UAG and thanked members for their leadership and service.”