At the second meeting of the newly reinstated National Space Council, held today (Feb. 21), Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. officials emphasized that the U.S. is on top in space, but said that in order to stay there, the nation would need to streamline regulations to accelerate commercial space ventures.
At the first National Space Council meeting in October, Pence emphasized that the U.S. will "win the 21st century in space," laying out a plan to focus on human spaceflight and get astronauts back to the moon. At today's meeting, hosted at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he talked about the path toward that goal and brought in several panelists who supported loosening regulations to allow for more innovation from private spaceflight companies.
"Our past triumphs draw us onward and upward to begin new journeys of exploration of our own, and reclaim our destiny as the vanguard of humanity's great adventure into the outer reaches of space," Pence said. "What we choose to do in space, like every frontier, plays a vital role in the lives of our people and the future of this nation here on Earth. It accelerates scientific discovery, spurs groundbreaking innovations, fuels our businesses, serves as the eyes and ears of America's war fighters and, quite literally, creates the jobs of the future."
But, "while American industry and technology have leaped toward the future, our government agencies too often have remained stuck in the past," he added — stating that regulations for launch are redundant, sometimes contradictory and slow down innovative ideas like satellite refueling efforts.
Pence said that the Trump administration's actions had put the U.S. back in the lead for space. (Those actions include the administration's announcement of a space policy directive declaring a new focus on human exploration and its request to increase the budget for Department of Defense space ventures — council members cited a $1 billion increase — as well as NASA's exploration programs.) And Robert Lightfoot, acting administrator at NASA, discussed NASA's efforts to reorient toward that new focus.
Pence, along with the secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross; the secretary of transportation, Jeffrey Rosen; and the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Neomi Rao; announced four policy recommendations going forward. First, the Department of Transportation should simplify its licensing requirements for launch and re-entry vehicle operations. Second, the Department of Commerce should take over all commercial space regulatory functions, except for such licensing. Currently, NOAA, the FAA, the FCC and other agencies each have a role in those regulations, which can cause delays for companies hoping to launch to space. Third, the radio frequency spectrum that commercial space operations need for their use should be protected. And fourth, the National Space Council should review current regulations that treat U.S. vehicles that land outside the country as exports of sensitive technology.
Susan Gordon, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, discussed Russian and Chinese programs to develop anti-satellite weapons in the next few years and surveillance-jamming technologies, emphasizing that those countries and others are increasing their focus on military space operations. China in particular, she said, is making impressive strides by running its space program like a military operation.
Pence called upon panelists to discuss how working seamlessly with commercial ventures is critical to maintaining a lead in space. The panel included Dean Cheng, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation; Jeffrey Manber, CEO of the commercial space company NanoRacks; and Bhavya Lal, of the Science and Technology Policy Institute.
"The U.S. government still spends more on space than the rest of the governments in the world combined," Lal said. "The United States has more satellites and other assets in orbit than any other country in the world. The world's currently most powerful rocket launch just two weeks ago is a product of American industry."
"These advantages, however, cannot be taken for granted, and our leadership in space is increasingly been challenged." She added, "Maintaining U.S. leadership means that the United States, more than ever, needs to leverage its core competitive advantage: an innovation ecosystem that rewards creativity, entrepreneurship and risk-taking." That can be achieved by streamlining regulations to attract even more private companies, spending efficiently and focusing on the key capabilities where the U.S. must keep an advantage over other countries, Lal said.
A second set of panelists discussed the impact that simplifying regulations and licensing rules could have on boosting economic activity in low Earth orbit and beyond. They included Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation; Kevin O'Connell, president of Innovative Analytics and Training; Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association; and Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.
"We need to strive for what economists call permissionless innovation in spaceflight," Stallmer said. "So long as public safety, international obligations, national security are not compromised, the presumption should be that a commercial space project can proceed."
If the U.S. were able to achieve that goal, the panelists said, it would be able to maintain its lead — and "America will once again astonish the world with the heights we reach and with the wonders we achieve," as Pence put it.
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Sarah Lewin started writing for Space.com in June of 2015 as a Staff Writer and became Associate Editor in 2019 . Her work has been featured by Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, Quanta Magazine, Wired, The Scientist, Science Friday and WGBH's Inside NOVA. Sarah has an MA from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program and an AB in mathematics from Brown University. When not writing, reading or thinking about space, Sarah enjoys musical theatre and mathematical papercraft. She is currently Assistant News Editor at Scientific American. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahExplains.