White House readies new system for space traffic management, VP Mike Pence says

Mike PenceMike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. (Space Symposium via YouTube)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Trump administration is getting set to sign off on a new set of procedures for managing space traffic and minimizing space junk, Vice President Mike Pence said today.

During an opening address to the 34th Space Symposium here, Pence talked up efforts to boost human spaceflight, set a course for the moon and Mars, and trim back regulations on the space industry.

“Under President Donald Trump, America is leading in space once again,” said Pence, who chairs the White House’s National Space Council.

Pence called on the Senate to confirm Trump’s choice for NASA administrator, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., whose nomination has been stalled for months. He also announced that Jim Ellis, former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, would head the space council’s Users Advisory Group.

But it was Pence’s comments on a new space traffic management system that drew the most attention.

He made note of past problems with satellite traffic, including a smash-up that produced thousands of bits of space junk in 2009. Tens of thousands of pieces of debris are currently being tracked in orbit.

“As commercial companies continue to send even more satellites into orbit, the volume of space traffic will only increase in the years ahead,” Pence said.

He said a new policy to address the potential risks will soon be sent to Trump for his approval. The policy calls on the Commerce Department to provide “a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use,” based on tracking data compiled by the Defense Department.

Commercial space ventures would also be encouraged to partner with the government on the development of data-sharing systems and guidelines for minimizing orbital debris and avoiding satellite collisions, Pence said.

Brian Weeden, technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation, said the new policy could address longstanding concerns about space traffic management. In an op-ed published by Space News last year, Weeden said the issue was a “super wicked public policy problem.”

Weeden helped write a policy paper that pointed up the need for a mechanism to double-check risk assessments for satellites and orbital debris. Such a mechanism could leverage commercial capabilities under the management of the Federal Aviation Administration, Weeden and his co-authors wrote.

The policy drawn up by the National Space Council could serve the same purpose, but with the Commerce Department rather than the FAA taking the lead role, Weeden said.

“I think the key issue is whether they will give the Department of Commerce the proper resources — budget and staff — to be able to take on this responsibility, in addition to the increased licensing responsibility the Trump administration is also proposing to give to Commerce,” Weeden told GeekWire in an email.

Addressing the national security side of space policy, Pence said the White House has directed the U.S. military to take unspecified measures to “strengthen the resilience of our space systems.” During a February meeting of the National Space Council, officials voiced concern about Russian and Chinese capabilities for disrupting U.S. space assets.

Pence touted NASA’s $20.7 billion budget for the current fiscal year, which is bigger than the Trump administration had proposed. But he held to the view that direct government funding for the International Space Station would end in 2025 — making way for commercial space outposts “where the government will be a tenant and a customer, and not the landlord.”

Looking beyond Earth orbit, the vice touted plans to create an complex in lunar orbit, known as the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, as a successor to the International Space Station.

“From this orbiting platform, and with our international and commercial partners, American astronauts will return to the moon to explore its surface and learn how to harness its resources, to launch expeditions to Mars,” Pence said.

NASA’s current plan calls for the LOP-G to take shape in the 2020s, with trips to Mars and its moons due to begin in the 2030s — long after Trump leaves the White House.

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