Senate passes bill that gives NASA and Commerce responsibility for removing space junk

The Senate on October 31, 2023 passed a bill that requires NASA to develop several space junk removal projects while giving the Commerce department the responsibility of identifying what space junk needs to be removed.

The central part of the bill would direct NASA to establish an active debris removal program. Tnat includes creating “a demonstration project to make competitive awards for the research, development, and demonstration of technologies leading to the remediation of selected orbital debris.” It would also require NASA to enter into a partnership to fly a demonstration mission to remove debris.

The debris that could be removed by those demonstrations would come from a list developed by the Department of Commerce to identify debris “to improve the safety and sustainability of orbiting satellites and on-orbit activities.” The Department would also lead work on best practices for space traffic coordination. The bill directs the National Space Council to lead an update of the federal government’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices.

Though unstated, this bill appears to be a direct slap at the FCC’s effort under the Biden administration to claim the power to regulate space junk, despite its lack of statutory authority to do so. In fact, the Senate underlined that slap in the face by also passing a bill that demanded the FCC streamline its regulatory overreach rather than expand it.

Neither bill is law yet, and it is unclear whether the House will agree to either. The Senate has sent the space junk bill to the House previously without passage.

FAA and FCC now competing for the honor of regulating commercial space more

Two stories today illustrate again the growing appetite of federal alphabet agencies to grab more power, even if that power is not included in their statutory authority.

First, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed new rules governing the de-orbiting of the upper stages of rockets by commercial launch companies.

The FAA is proposing a new rule requiring commercial space companies to dispose of their rocket upper stages to limit the creation of more space debris. Five disposal methods are allowed: a controlled or uncontrolled deorbit within certain time limits, putting the stage into a less congested orbit or sending it into an Earth-escape orbit, or retrieving it. A 90-day public comment period will begin once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.

Though this “appears to implement the updated U.S. Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices issued in 2019,” it upgrades it from a “practice” that the government requests companies to follow to a “rule” they must follow. It also expands the power of the FAA to regulate commercial rocket companies, setting a new precedent of control that I guarantee with time will expand further.

Not to be outdone in this power grab, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) added its own new satellite rules to the satellite licenses of two constellations run by the companies Iceye and Planet. The rules however have nothing to do with regulating the use of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is the FCC’s sole purpose according to the law that created it:
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Senate approves Biden’s FCC nominee, giving him a Democrat majority on FCC

FCC: now controlled by Democrats
The FCC, now controlled by the
power-hungry Democratic Party

Failure theater: The Senate yesterday voted 55 to 43 to approve Biden’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nominee, Anna Gomez, thus giving the Democrats a 4 to 3 majority on the Commission.

This was Biden’s second nominee to the commission, with the first withdrawn when it was clear the Senate opposed the nominee.

Biden tried again in May with the nomination of Gomez, a State Department digital policy official who was previously deputy assistant secretary at the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) from 2009 to 2023. A lawyer, Gomez was vice president of government affairs at Sprint Nextel from 2006 to 2009 and before that spent about 12 years at the FCC in several roles.

Gomez got through the confirmation process with relative ease, though most Republicans voted against her. Both parties seem to expect the FCC to reinstate net neutrality rules now that Democrats will have a majority.

Imposing net neutrality is essentially socialism/communism for the internet. It will squash competition, cost a fortune, and eventually be used as well to squelch dissent online (which translates into silencing conservatives).

From the perspective of space, the majority on the FCC is likely very bad news as well, for several reasons. » Read more

Senate committee approves Biden’s FCC nominees

Despite apparent opposition to the Biden nominees by Republicans, the Senate committee involved has approved the three FCC nominees and moved that the process proceed to a vote in the full Senate.

The article also includes these paragraphs, describing absurdities that could only occur in Congress:

[Ted] Cruz [R-Texas] moved that all the nominations, including Damelin and a nominee for the National Transportation Safety Board plus a list of Coast Guard promotions, be favorably reported. There were no objections and the motion was agreed to.

Immediately thereafter, however, Cruz and other Republicans asked to be recorded as no on Gomez and/or Starks and two Democrats as no on Carr. It’s not possible to discern from the webcast who was speaking in all instances, but the bottom line is that all the nominations were approved and now can go to the floor for a vote by the full Senate. The requests to be recorded as no are a signal that the rest of the confirmation process will not be easy.

Cruz moves the nominees should be “favorably” reported, but then announces he and others are against some.

All in all, this appears to be another example of Republican failure theater. Make it sound like you are trying to block Biden’s policies, but then do whatever is necessary to let them to go into effect. Considering that the Democratic Party appointees at the FCC have been pushing for regulatory power beyond the commission’s statutory authority, it seems absurd for any Republican senator (or Democrat senator for that matter) to okay any Biden nominees who would continue that power grab. And yet, the Republicans appear willing to go along.

New bill imposes new and odious regulation on private space stations and satellites

Congress and the FCC to private space: Nice business you got here.
Congress and the FCC to private space: “Nice business you
got here. Shame if something happened to it.”

On December 8, 2022, two bills, sponsored by both a Democrat and a Republican, were introduced in the House to give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the power to regulate and even block the launch of commercial private space stations, while also giving that agency the power to require companies to meet its arbitrary regulations on de-orbiting defunct satellites and stations.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and the ranking member, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), said their legislation is needed to modernize the FCC for the rapidly changing space industry. Their two bills — the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act and Secure Space Act — seek to update regulations covering foreign ownership, space sustainability, license processing timelines, and satellite spectrum sharing.

The key language in the first bill [pdf] is this:
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Several major rocket companies to the FCC: stay out!

In response to the proposal by managers at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it regulate satellite operations despite having no actual legal authority to do so, a cohort of major rocket companies as well as others have responded in firm opposition.

Major space companies, including SpaceX and Relativity, are urging the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to stick to its purview — spectrum usage — as it looks to potentially update its rules for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) missions.

There is plenty that the FCC could — and should do — to support ISAM missions that sit squarely within its regulatory bounds, the companies said. SpaceX and others, as well as startups like Orbit Fab, which wants to build refueling depots in space, and Starfish Space, which is developing a satellite servicing vehicle, submitted recommendations related to spectrum and ISAM. The commission also heard from Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance and other space companies and industry groups.

…Relativity Space and the industry association Commercial Spaceflight Federation separately argued that the FCC’s involvement in issues outside of those related to spectrum could result in duplicative approvals processes. These could be especially challenging for smaller startups and newer space entrants to navigate.

It is likely that if the FCC tries to impose regulations outside of its legal authority, one or more of these companies are going to sue to nullify those regulations, and will likely win. In the process nothing will be gained, and much lost. Thus, this advice from the industry makes great sense, and the FCC and the Biden administration should stop playing empire-building games and focus on what it is legally supposed to do.

FCC decides to expand its power in space

FCC: Now in charge of everything in space

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today voted to initiate what it calls a “Notice of Inquiry” to begin a policy review aimed at expanding its involvement and regulation of “space missions like satellite refueling, inspecting and repairing in-orbit spacecraft, capturing and removing debris, and transforming materials through manufacturing while in space.”

From the Federal Communications Commission’s press release [pdf]:

Today’s action continues this modernization effort as in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing capabilities – or “ISAM” – has the potential to build entire industries, create new jobs, mitigate climate change, and advance America’s economic, scientific, technological, and national security interests. ISAM missions take place on-orbit, in transit, or on the surface of space bodies. The FCC’s effort to open up this conversation dovetails with the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s recent release of a ISAM National Strategy.

This policy review is part of the FCC’s broad effort to update its rules for the new space age. For example, the FCC is taking significant steps to update its satellite rules. The FCC also adopted new rules to lay the groundwork for giving satellite launch companies ready access to spectrum for transmissions from space launch vehicles during pre-launch testing and space launch operations.

ISAM (In-space Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing) refers to the final policy statement [pdf] of a working group in the National Science & Technology Council, created as part of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Biden administration. That policy statement outlined six strategies that the federal government needs to focus on to encourage American success in space. From its conclusion:
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