What the Private Space Industry Wants From Congress

Ted Cruz is looking for ways to get the government out of the space industry’s hair, but the companies themselves are asking for greater investments in government regulators and infrastructure.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the Jason-3 satellite aboard, stands ready for flight at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. on Jan. 16, 2016.
Matt Hartman via AP
Brendan Bordelon
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Brendan Bordelon
July 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

Ted Cruz has spent the last several months searching for ways to lighten the regulatory load for the rapidly growing U.S. outer-space industry. But in a hearing with space-industry executives and experts Thursday, the conservative Republican senator was told that the burgeoning business sector may—in at least some instances—require more government to succeed.

As chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, Cruz has held a series of hearings this year on how to boost private space exploration and development. The senator hopes to pass a bill this cycle that would build on the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which passed last Congress and imposed a regulatory moratorium on new Federal Aviation Administration rules policing the private companies blasting rockets into space on an increasingly regular basis.

Thursday’s hearing included an executive from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and representatives from several other space companies. And while the industry executives did single out areas where they’d like to see regulatory rollbacks, they also asked Cruz to increase funding and manpower at the FAA and invest in upgrading NASA spaceports across the country.

Tim Hughes, the senior vice president for global business and government affairs at SpaceX, said the rapid increase in rocket launches being pursued by his company—the firm has nearly 70 launches on manifest—threatens to overwhelm the FAA launch-approval process and make it much harder to get off the ground.

“The cadence and pace with which we are now launching—combined with startup companies and other companies that will start launching very soon—gives rise to concerns that the existing regulatory regime isn’t rightsized for this volume of launches,” said Hughes, calling it a “dollars and manpower” issue.

Hughes also fretted over the state of NASA’s spaceports and launch pads, several of which SpaceX uses for its own launches on a regular basis. “There is infrastructure that could probably use modernization,” he said. “The road, some of the bridges. The electrical infrastructure at Vandenberg [Air Force Base], in particular, is aging. We had situations in the past where the electricity had gone out prior to a launch.”

“In order to keep the commercial companies running in conjunction with NASA, I think additional modernization of infrastructure would be quite helpful,” Hughes said.

Jeffrey Manber, the CEO at space-products-and-service company NanoRacks, said continued federal investments in outer-space infrastructure were crucial for continued private space development. Much of NanoRacks and SpaceX’s business now comes from servicing the government-developed International Space Station, and Manber said it was important that the government remain engaged on similar projects in the future if the private space industry is to flourish.

“Some of my colleagues talk about this utopian view with less government,” Manber said. “I don’t see that, and I don’t welcome that. We need government as regulator, government as provider of infrastructure.”

It’s not clear whether Cruz, a persistent skeptic of federal bureaucracies and increased government spending, will include those asks in his planned space-industry bill. Speaking with reporters after the hearing, the senator said he’s still focused on gathering expert insight on the best way forward.

But space-law expert Michael Listner said that he believes Cruz “might be willing to actually put some more money into helping develop infrastructure”—with a caveat.

“I don’t think he’s going to throw money at it—I think it’s going to come with some stipulations,” Listner said. “Basically it’s going to say ‘Look, we’re going to put money into it, but we want you to put some skin in the game, too.’ I think he’s going to go more along the line of government-private-sector partnerships versus government subsidies.”

Some of the panelists did point out specific federal rules that they felt were holding back the space industry. Dr. Moriba K. Jah, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas, said that regulations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prevent companies from providing situational-awareness data to one another in space. That will become a problem as Earth’s orbit gets increasingly crowded, and Jah asked that any legislation remove that barrier to data sharing.

Hughes also floated broad changes to the FAA’s launch-authorization process, again arguing that the increasing number of planned launches necessitated a faster approval approach. “They were written at a time where the U.S. might be launching six to eight times a year,” Hughes said. “They aren’t really rightsized, at this point, for the volume we’re talking about.” The SpaceX executive suggested that the FAA instead authorize broad “missions” that would include a multitude of individual launches under one umbrella.

While Cruz doesn’t have a timeline for introducing legislation, congressional Republicans do seem interested in pushing a new space-industry bill this Congress. GOP Rep. Lamar Smith introduced the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017 in June, and the bill was pushed out of committee several days later. But with Capitol Hill now gripped in an intractable health care debate—and with tax reform potentially on the horizon—lawmakers may not have the bandwidth to grapple with broad space-industry legislation this cycle.

Listner says the space-industry will continue to do well even if legislation stalls this Congress, pointing out the decisive impact of the 2015 U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. “They got a huge helping right there from the federal government,” he said. “If something doesn’t materialize this year, it isn’t the end of the world.”

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