DISCLAIMER: H.R. 2809 has not yet been passed into law.

Space travel is hard. Not only are the engineering and financial hurdles next to impossible for startup companies to overcome, but a maze of regulatory red tape stands between entrepreneurs and their goals. No, this article is not suggesting that regulation on space activities is bad. We at astropreneurs.space regard the Outer Space Treaty like a sacred constitution and support State Governments actively overseeing the space activities of their nationals. However, in the same way that innovation and efficiency in science, engineering, and astrophysics are essential to humanity’s future in space, laws and regulations must also evolve to serve the needs of space actors.

This article seeks to raise awareness for a bill that recently passed in the United States House of Representatives (the House) and has since been submitted to the U.S. Senate for approval. This bill, designated H.R. 2809 – The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (the Bill), seeks to accomplish some much-needed regulatory house-cleaning in order to streamline the licensing process for both remote-sensing and non-traditional space activities.

As it stands today, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licenses/oversees space launches, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses/oversees satellite communications, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) licenses/oversees commercial remote sensing. However, the Bill would abolish the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office at NOAA and transfer licensing authority for remote sensing satellites to the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) located within the Department of Commerce. The Bill tasks this newly formed office with the authority to issue certifications and licenses to U.S. nationals conducting space activities. The Act states, “a United States entity may not operate a space object unless the entity holds a certification issued under this chapter for the operation of such object …” (H.R. 2809 § 80102(c), 115th Cong. (2018)).

If passed, this bill would establish the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce as the regulatory hub for practically every space activity except launches (still authorized by the FAA). However, this isn’t all that the bill seeks to accomplish. In addition to centralizing the regulatory framework for space activities, the Bill also seeks to make the regulatory process simpler and more efficient. This is good news for space startups looking to license their first CubeSat, small launch vehicle, or technology demonstrator. Below are listed some of the key aspects of the Bill that could potentially catalyze up-and-coming space actors by cutting regulatory red tape and enhancing cost effectiveness:

  • The Bill Says: The OSC shall require only one certification for a U.S. entity to conduct multiple operations using a single space object, operate multiple space objects that carry out substantially similar operations, or use multiple space objects to carry out a single space operation. (H.R. 2809 § 80102(3), 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? Only one permit would be required to operate either one satellite or an entire constellation of satellites that are fulfilling essentially the same purpose. This is a major time and money saver for anyone either currently operating or planning to operate space objects.
  • The Bill Says: The OSC shall require only one permit for a U.S. operator of space-based remote sensing systems to conduct multiple operations using such a system, operate multiple systems that carry out similar operations, or use multiple systems to carry out a single remote sensing operation. (H.R. 2809 § 80201(e), 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? Once again, only one permit would be required to operate either one remote sensing satellite or an entire fleet of remote sensing satellites that are fulfilling essentially the same purpose. This is the same major time and money saver for remote sensing operators.
  • The Bill Says: Non-U.S. entities may apply for a permit to operate a space-based remote sensing system if they identify a U.S. entity that has consented to maintaining responsibility for the operation of that system. (H.R. 2809 § 80201(g), 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? S. entities could sponsor spacecraft from all over the world, fostering integration and cooperation between U.S. nationals and international space-faring entities.
  • The Bill Says: The OSC must review and provide a determination for license/permit applications within 90 days of submission, else an application is automatically approved at the close of the 90-day period. (H.R. 2809 § 80103(b)(1-2), 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? No one likes to be kept waiting. This aspect of the Bill ensures that your space crush will text you back about that dinner/movie … within 90 days.
  • The Bill Says: The 90-day period may be extended by 60 days (only once) by the President of the United States in order to address questions of national security. (H.R. 2809 § 80202(b)(4)(A), 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? Just in case things get a little crazy at the OSC, the President can call a time out to make sure everyone is conducting their activities safely.
  • The Bill Says: If a permit application poses a significant national security risk, the OSC may either deny that application or condition its acceptance upon reasonable commercially available efforts. However, no application may be denied or conditioned if similar systems/capabilities are already commercially available or expected to become available during the next three years. (H.R. 2809 § 80202(e), 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? Potential space actors will be kept as safe as possible from potential regulatory bullying or potentially over-zealous application investigations.
  • The Bill Says: Neither the OSC or the Department of Transportation may prevent a launch or reentry—on the basis of national security, foreign policy, or international obligations of the U.S.—if the payload in question has received a permit from the OSC to operate as a space object. (H.R. 2809 § Sec. 8, 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? Essentially, once a permit has been granted for the operation of a space object, its authority is difficult to question. This is fantastic for overall mission assurance.
  • The Bill Says: The OSC will also allow U.S. entities to apply for a permit to operate space-based remote sensing systems that utilize other civilian or government satellites/vehicles as a platform. In fact, the OSC is given authority to offer assistance in finding opportunities like this. (H.R. 2809 § 80205(a), 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? This aspect of the Bill allows U.S. entities to operate space-based businesses using someone else’s spacecraft. Essentially, you can apply to fly someone else’s remote controlled airplane that is already in the air.
  • The Bill Says: All applications must include a space debris mitigation plan. (H.R. 2809 § 80104(a), 115th (2018)).
    – The Benefits? The space environment is just as important as our Earth environment. Trashing our immediate orbital environment only slows down humanity’s progress in the long run. Thankfully, this Bill upholds current regulatory and commercial standards that help protect the space environment for future use.

Not only would this Bill potentially allow operators to launch multiple space vehicles/systems under a single permit and even foster collaboration between foreign and U.S. entities, but it also guarantees a speedy application process, streamlines the use of already existing space systems by new operators, and provides unprecedented mission assurance. Furthermore, the Bill directs the OSC to establish multiple advisory committees focused on helping develop the commercial space industry, reducing unnecessary red tape, and ensuring best practices within the Office. (H.R. 2809 § 80109, 115th Cong. (2018)). The Bill also sets for language directing the President to protect the interests of U.S. commercial entities in space, namely interests in exploiting/utilizing space resources. (H.R. 2809 § 80111, 115th Cong. (2018)).

Rarely does a piece of legislation come around that actually has the potential to help improve access to space. This Bill appears to be a potential exception to the rule. Space entrepreneurs in the U.S. and abroad should pay close attention to the progress of this Bill as it moves forward in the Senate. Upon becoming law, this legislation could dramatically reduce the cost of operating space systems, regardless of size or complexity. It is this author’s hope that the Senate passes H.R. 2809 as soon as possible.

Posted by Marshall McKellar