Appropriators in the Senate are dissatisfied with the lack of advancement in civil space traffic management

Senate appropriators, unhappy by the Commerce Department’s lack of progress on space traffic management, have threatened to withhold additional funding until the department provides comprehensive plans. Senate appropriators provided $20 million for the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) in a report following its form of commerce, justice, and science budget package for the fiscal year 2022, issued October 18.  That’s more than double the $10 million which the office received in 2021 and asked for in 2022.

The majority of the money will go toward developing space traffic management (STM) technologies, like an open architecture data repository which will serve as the project’s core. In 2018, the Commerce Department was directed to take control of civil STM from Defense Department under Space Policy Directive 3.

The National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been reluctant to make progress on such initiatives this year. Since the start of the Biden presidency in January, it has also been without a full-time director.

Senate appropriators expressed their dissatisfaction with the seeming lack of progress in the report. “The Committee is particularly dissatisfied with NESDIS’s implementation of the financial year 2021 funding granted to launch a space traffic control pilot project, with seemingly minimal progress made in the implementation of the pilot,” it said.

Because of this lack of progress, the committee “questions NESDIS’ ability to administer OSC over the long term” and “suggests restructuring OSC’s management structure such that it reports primarily to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere,” or the NOAA administrator.

NOAA is required to submit a five-year comprehensive strategy for the Office of Space Commerce in order to “achieve full operational capacity, encompassing out-year mission objectives and estimated budgetary requirements,” according to the report. The report omits a quarter of $29.5 million allotted for “executive leadership” at NOAA until a report is delivered, in order to motivate that effort.

That funds and language will have to be harmonized with the House version of the financial year 2022 appropriations plan, which includes $10 million for the Office of Space Commerce and does not include a threat of funding cuts. It is, however, a clear indication of congressional and industry dissatisfaction with the Commerce Department’s slow progress.

During a panel discussion at The Aerospace Corporation’s Value of Space Summit on October 19, Jared Stout, who serves as the director of the congressional and regulatory policy at the Meeks, Butera & Israel PLLC, remarked, “There’s a significant dearth of governmental leadership in this area.” As evidence, he pointed to the appropriations language. “They wanted Commerce to make greater progress.”

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