Space Cowboys: Key Outer Space Policy Questions
At this year’s TPI Aspen Forum 2023, we held a dinner working group session on Monday, August 21 entitled, “Space Cowboys: Key Outer Space Policy Questions.” Under the Chatham House Rule, statements aren’t attributable for quotation but discussion points can be shared. We had a lively conversation about the future of space and the coming years of development.
As a moderator, I started with an outline of pressing issues in space policy, including space debris, spectrum, managing potential congestion in low-earth orbit, and questions related to growing interest in mining in space. In particular, I hoped our participants would discuss an overview of the space policy landscape, perspectives on U.S. space leadership, the WRC-23 meetings in Dubai this coming November 20-December 15, 2023, key Issues in orbital debris policy, key issues in space spectrum policy for 6G, NGSOs, and lunar activities, and key issues in how the 1967 Space Treaty applies today.
Our panelists included Asha Balakrishnan, Assistant Director, Science and Technology Policy Institute, Peter Davidson, Global Vice President, Government Affairs & Policy, Intelsat, Kalpak Gude, Head of Domestic Regulatory Affairs, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Scott Blake Harris, Senior Spectrum Advisor and Director of the National Spectrum Strategy, NTIA, Ed Hearst, CEO, Hearst Technology and Trade, and myself as moderator, Sarah Oh Lam, Senior Fellow, Technology Policy Institute. Other conference attendees joined the discussion as attendees of the working group, many of whom could have been panelists themselves with their knowledge and policy experience.
Several themes emerged from the dinner discussion.
Ramping Up for More Activity in Space
In a forum focused on space policy, it was clear that commercial and governmental activity in space is increasing which gives rise to a need to refresh policy structures that were put in place in the mid-century when space exploration began.
Orbital debris is increasing with small and large fragments by domestic and international players. We discussed the jurisdictional landscape of space regulation in the U.S. with different federal agencies that monitor separate arenas of space activity.
Who regulates space is a key question, such as the FAA with a focus on launch vehicles, the FCC with the leading role in orbital debris policy through its satellite licensing involvement, NOAA with a change of its CRSRA rules on debris mitigation policy in its private remote sensing licensing regime, giving its jurisdiction over to the FCC. Other federal agencies are involved in space policy, from Commerce’s NTIA, the State Department, NASA, and DOD. The White House’s OSTP serves in executive policymaking among a patchwork of federal offices focused on parts of space policy.
Regarding radio spectrum, the discussion focused on the need for U.S. commitment and initiative to pursue space exploration, commercial activity, and the race to the moon and Mars with more attention. While the government has shown a commitment to space through the FCC’s renaming of the international bureau to the space bureau and the formation of space force groups in military operations, the U.S. could do better to recognize the importance of this moment in space deployments.
We discussed the space landscape in the next 5-10 years of development, given that several companies will deploy satellite constellations capable of providing broadband connectivity to home terminals at affordable prices. The growth of combined GSO and NGSO networks that connect between geosynchronous and low-earth-orbit satellites will also increase connectivity and access. With more activity at the non-geosynchronous low earth orbit levels, orbital debris policy incentives become more important to understand.
That brought us to the international dimensions of space, which is the bigger theme of any space policy discussion because space zones above the earth’s surface are not meted out by nation states yet and are governed under the 1967 Space Treaty among other United Nations agreements. China, Russia, India and dozens of other countries are launching satellites into space and sending missions to the moon and beyond just as U.S. companies are ramping up investments as well.
The WRC-23 meetings this fall will set the agenda for the next WRC-27 in four years, which will reflect a different landscape of satellite constellations. Formulating policy positions and U.S. leadership now is important for framing the study groups at the next WRC meeting.
Participants discussed the posture of international countries that are not the top few but have an interest in adopting satellite broadband to connect remote and rural areas, such as in Africa. While the international dimensions at the WRC are of importance to them, the main sentiment is that they just want the connections to work at a reasonable price.
We also mentioned upcoming legislative activity and bills that focus on satellite regulations in Congress. While an effort to reform FCC satellite licensing did not pass the House earlier this summer, more work will continue on a bipartisan basis to update frameworks for U.S. satellite providers and encourage investment.
As satellite technology continues to develop in earnest, policymakers are being asked to set priorities and streamline frameworks to best position the U.S. in the space race. We’ll continue to monitor developments in space policy especially with news that develops from Dubai this fall at WRC-23.