Head of Commerce’s space office questions new FCC regulations on space junk

Turf war! At a conference yesterday Richard Dalbello, director of the Office of Space Commerce at the Commerce Department, strongly questioned the FCC’s legal authority for its just passed new regulation on the de-orbiting of space junk.

“I think the FCC, for their part, has pushed the boundaries of their authorities pretty aggressively,” he said when asked about what agency should have oversight for issues like that, as his office works to create a civil space traffic management capability. “Although I certainly congratulate them on the depth of their intellectual work,” he said of the FCC and its new order, “a lot of the things that they articulated are probably, arguably, outside their job jar.”

Dalbello’s comments only add to the many turf wars going on in the DC swamp over space regulation. Some in Congress want all space regulation to shift to his office. Others want it to be distributed across a number of agencies in both the military and civilian bureaucracies.

Regardless, Dalbello’s office is the agency that might actually have the legal authority for regulating space junk. And it is certain that the FCC does not have it.

Congress revises law governing commercial space

The competition heats up? Congress this week passed a revision to the Commercial Space Act that they claimed will help encourage the growth of the new industry.

According to the Senate press release, the bill does the following:

  • Extend the liability waiver for private space launches until 2023
  • Extend ISS operations until 2024
  • Establishes a legal right for U.S. companies to mine resources in space
  • Demands a new more streamlined framework for the government’s regulation of the industry

The last item is probably mostly blather, since a close look at the bill itself [pdf] reveals that most of these demands are merely requirements that the executive branch write a report. The odious rules that will allow the federal government to regulate and restrict the industry all remain. And even though the bill makes a big deal about establishing these regulations in concert with the industry itself, that only means that today’s players can use the government to make it difficult for new players to get started.

The claim that the bill also establishes “a legal right to resources a U.S. citizen may recover in space consistent with current law and international obligations of the United States,” as noted in the Senate press release, is a very big overstatement. The bill’s wording does nothing to get the U.S. out of the UN’s Outer Space Treaty, which forbids any person or nation from claiming ownership of territory in space. All the bill does is express the desire that American citizens should have the right to own what they mine, while at the same time stating that these resources will be “obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.’’ In other words, the Outer Space Treaty still applies, and you can’t own it.

For what it’s worth, the bill also renames the FAA’s space regulatory agency from “The Office of Space Commercialization” to “The Office of Space Commerce.”

All in all, the bill’s most important overall accomplishment is that it strongly emphasizes and encourages the development of a private space industry, and tries to focus the government’s regulatory efforts in that direction. This ain’t perfect, but it could be considered a step in the right direction.

One more thing to note: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) appears to have been a major player in getting this bill written and passed.