Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lays out his plan to streamline space regulations

Wilbur RossWilbur Ross
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears on a giant video screen as he addresses the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross today pledged to make outer space more business-friendly as part of his drive to turn his department into the “one-stop shop for space commerce.”

During his speech to the 34th Space Symposium here, he pointed to last month’s early cutoff of video from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch as an issue he’s addressing.

“This is a perfect example of how commercial activity in space is outpacing government regulation,” he said. “No more.”

Ross said giving the space industry freer rein will become more important as commercial space ventures proliferate. Commercial space is on track to become a trillion-dollar industry “sooner than most people realize,” he said.

One of the major shifts being implemented by the Trump administration is to put the Commerce Department in the lead position for space industry regulation, instead of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

As part of that shift, Ross said a new director would soon be appointed for the Office of Space Commerce, “a position that had been left vacant for nearly 10 years.”

“This individual will serve as an ambassador for U.S. space companies, and will advocate for our business opportunities around the world,” he said.

The Commerce Department will also set up a “mission authorization framework” that will cover all commercial space activities — other than national security missions and spectrum issues that are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

“Such a framework will provide U.S. industry with the government stamp of approval needed to embark on novel, non-traditional opportunities in space that require significant investment,” Ross said.

He said such opportunities range from satellite servicing and refueling to in-space manufacturing, space tourism, asteroid mining and lunar habitation.

The department is also preparing a new policy on export regulations, which has been a longtime sticking point for space ventures. Recommendations for changes are due by the end of this year.

Ross referred back to Vice President Mike Pence’s comments, made at the Space Symposium a day earlier, in which he said the Commerce Department would be put in charge of a new system aimed at distributing data about space situational awareness and space traffic management.

Traditionally, the Defense Department has been in charge of tracking the tens of thousands of objects in orbit, but the pace of commercial launches is expected to rise dramatically in the next few years.

For example, SpaceX, OneWeb and other satellite ventures are on track to send thousands of telecommunications satellites into low Earth orbit to provide global internet access. That could double the number of operational satellites currently in orbit.

To cope with the increase, Commerce will take a bigger role in heading off cross-satellite interference. Ross said his department was “uniquely positioned” to partner with industry players on the development of standards and practices for satellite activities.

“We are the ‘Friend of Business’ agency,” he said.

Ross said the department will also convene an international space regulatory conference in the U.S. by the end of the year to discuss coordinating space traffic management around the globe.

As for that SpaceX video issue, Ross said Commerce was reviewing U.S. regulations on remote sensing from orbit.

“Next month, the department will publish an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for regulatory reform in commercial remote sensing,” Ross said. “We look forward to hearing feedback from all stakeholders and interested parties.”

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