US Congresswoman Grace Meng Sheds Light on the Federal Push to Promote the Private Space Industry

Over the past several years, the United States Congress and the White House have demonstrated a renewed interest in space exploration not seen since President Reagan’s proposed ‘Star Wars’ initiative in the 1980s. In 2017, the National Space Council was reinstated after being disbanded in 1993. In 2018, President Trump directed the Pentagon to create a “Space Force” that would oversee operations in the space domain. And in 2019, the Department of Defense established the Space Development Agency to unite efforts across the department to find innovative solutions to space threats.
To this end, both Congress and the White House understand the importance of a private-public partnership in order to promote national space interests. For example, one such congresswoman, Representative Grace Meng, has sponsored and co-sponsored legislative work to ensure the vitality of the US and global space companies.
For background, she represents New York’s 6th District and serves on the Committee of Appropriations and the Committee of Ethics. Within the Committee of Appropriations, she sits on the Subcommittee of Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (among other subcommittees). In January of 2018, she introduced to the House of Representatives her Space Debris Removal Act. It directs NASA, in conjunction with other federal agencies, to develop or acquire technologies and polices to remove orbital debris. She also co-sponsored the United States and Israel Space Cooperation Act, which directs NASA to work with the Israel Space Agency in identifying and pursuing peaceful space exploration and science initiatives.
To provide further clarity on the US’s push to promote the private space industry, Representative Meng agreed to be interviewed.

Astropreneurs: Do you believe that federal initiatives, such as the Space Development Agency and the Space Force, can play an important role in developing the commercial space economy? Or are they unnecessary distractions adding more layers of complicated and complex bureaucracy?

Grace Meng: The Trump Administration has unveiled two new proposals that would create a Space Development Agency (SDA) and Space Force in the Department of Defense (DOD), with the former focused on new space acquisitions and the latter focused on protecting US defense space assets. The administration did not provide a carefully crafted proposal, and that is why Congress has taken an interest in crafting legislation that shapes the organization, mission, and authorities of Space Force and SDA. Hence, it is unclear how either will affect the commercial space economy. In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and incorporated provisions that shape Space Force’s mission, size, and authorities. For example, Space Force would be a new military service, and would be fully funded at $72.4 million. In addition to creating new civilian positions that would be responsible for developing space policy and space acquisition, Space Force would also re-designate the head of Air Force Space Command as head of the Space Force. Over time, that individual would eventually be able to attend meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Space Force would have one year to figure out its organization.
In early June, the House Armed Services Committee passed its version of the NDAA that would create a Space Corps—instead of a Space Force—within the Department of the Air Force, not a separate military service. The Space Corps would be led by a four-star Commandant who would be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The House version also allows the Air Force to transfer personnel and assets to the Space Corps, except for those that are part of the intelligence community. While the Space Corps may establish an alternative acquisition system for defense space acquisitions, the Deputy Secretary of Defense must submit a plan on this proposal. The House version provides two years for the Space Corps to figure out its transition.
Once the House passes its version of the NDAA, the House and Senate will need to go to conference and reconcile the differences in their approaches to Space Force. All this is to say that Congress is closely keeping track of both initiatives and will exercise oversight to ensure US taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.

Astropreneurs: Do you think that the federal government, specifically the Department of Commerce and the Federal Aviation Administration, is doing enough to streamline space regulations for both space startups and space corporations?

Grace Meng: The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have significant capacity to shape the direction of federal agencies. As a Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, I am committed to supporting efforts that streamline regulations and ensure space startups and corporations can succeed.  I will continue to review policies and regulations that affect the industry’s growth and the ability of our nation to maintain a robust commercial industry.

Astropreneurs: I’ve often heard that the best way to become a millionaire in the space industry is to start off as a billionaire in the space industry. What are some of the ways that the federal government can encourage space startups to enter the industry without an initial backing of hundreds of millions of dollars?

Grace Meng: Taking part in the space industry is not cheap, but the federal government is finding ways to make space startups and corporations more accessible and affordable. NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program promotes the growth of the commercial launch industry by providing cheaper rockets, some of which may be reusable. Currently, there is also a renewed interest in low-cost satellites, with some being small enough to fit in one hand. These new innovations from NASA help allow more people to be included in the space industry. 

Astropreneurs: How would you rate the current cooperation between the federal government and private enterprises in the space industry? How do you think that they can be improved?

Grace Meng: The current level of cooperation between NASA and private space companies has enabled NASA to pursue new initiatives in space at a lower cost. This is a good thing especially since NASA retired its last shuttle in 2011. By funding companies like SpaceX, NASA has been able to explore other issues while ensuring it is still able to send assets into space via private space companies. Furthermore, partnerships with private companies allows NASA to be exposed to different ways of thinking. Being challenged to think differently on how to approach problems is beneficial. Public-private partnerships can be good and NASA’s relationships with different private entities is good and should continue.

Astropreneurs: On a separate note, what should the United States do when countries (both allies and foes) threaten global access to space? For example, a few months ago, the Indian military blew up one of its satellites and produced orbital debris that will take many years, if not more, to eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Grace Meng: Space is a common global good that offers all nations the opportunity to explore the cosmos and use space for commercial benefit. Militarizing space benefits no one and testing weapons in space against obsolete satellites creates many problems for all nations that rely on and possess space assets. That is why it is important that when such events do occur, the United States speak out against actions that threaten access to space.

Posted by Richard Nederlander