Friday, September 25, 2015

Commercial Space Stations Face Significant Hurdles

Proposals to develop commercial space stations in low Earth orbit that could serve as successors to the International Space Station face both an uncertain regulatory environment and questions about their economic viability, according to both those planning such stations and those who might regulate them.

At a panel discussion on commercial space stations held here Sept. 22 by the Secure World Foundation, government and industry officials noted that such facilities fall into a regulatory gray area, with no U.S. government agency having clear oversight of them as required by international treaty.

“I’m not a fan of regulation, but I do think this could create problems when you ask for a launch license or payload review,” said Mike Gold, director of Washington operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace, a North Las Vegas, Nevada-based company planning commercial stations.

Gold noted that Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 requires governments to perform “continuing supervision” of space activities of entities under its jurisdiction, like companies. That supervision is carried out for some other space activities, like licensing of commercial remote sensing satellites by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and of communications satellites by the Federal Communications Commission.

Some in industry have proposed that the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial launches and reentries, take on that oversight role for other commercial space activities. Gold said he envisioned a relatively simple system where companies registered their spacecraft with the FAA and informed them of any significant changes. “I think that would meet the Outer Space Treaty’s obligations and create the environment of certainty and predictability that industry and investors need,” he said.

The FAA is interested in taking on that responsibility. “We’re going to continue to work within government to put together the right oversight framework,” said Steph Earle of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). That would, he noted, ultimately require congressional action to give the FAA that authority.

Earle added that he believed the FAA would be a better fit for regulating commercial space stations than other agencies, like the FCC and NOAA. “It doesn’t seem that the other agencies are well suited to this, and the FAA thinks that it is,” he said.

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