Better Regulations will Benefit Space Industry

In the 1960s, exploration was about ‘look at what we can do that no other country can’. The current direction is much more about ‘what can we do with a larger number of partners’, says Dr. Scott Pace, Deputy Assistant to the President and Executive Secretary of the US National Space Council.

By Anusuya Datta

Space is often called the final frontier and mankind’s common province. This calls for increased multilateralism, commercialization and democratization, and broad cooperation to address some of the pressing global challenges. What is the National Space Council doing in this regard?

We see space as the final frontier, but in legal terms and international law, we would like to emphasize that as far as outer space is concerned, we don’t see it as a global commons. Global commons refers to a regime whose limits are defined by agreement, and people have not agreed on where limits exist in space. So, the areas of the high seas, for example, are global commons, but space is not really defined that way. We currently talk about it as a shared domain in which we work. Like many other sectors, the space industry is driven by, and is vulnerable to, geopolitical developments.

In the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act 2015, we made it clear that US citizens have the right to engage in commercial exploration and use of space resources. We are currently working with the international community and drawing on legal precedents from other domains like the high seas to find ways to promote commercial development of space resources. Some people like to believe that the issue of space being a common province means that all legal issues are settled. We don’t believe that is really true — space is an area which is still quite undefined, and we are looking at having discussions with other like-minded countries that are interested in promoting the commercial development of space for creating a more predictable and stable environment for investors.

Do you think that the National Space Council can take a leadership position in developing this global commons agenda?

Even though we don’t see space as global commons, there are common issues that we need to address. The role of Space Council is to oversee and make sure that the work is getting done to advance the President’s agenda and to resolve conflicts that may come up. For example, if there is a conflict between, say, the Commerce and Defense departments over what position to take at the policy development stage, we would step in and work on a resolution.

NASA has been on the forefront of commercialization of the space industry. How do you think this strategy so far has worked and boosted entrepreneurship?

As part of its mission, which is centered on science and exploration, NASA has done many things in commercial partnerships with the industry. NASA’s primary job is not commercialization – that job belongs to the industry. NASA’s role is to follow its mission and to use industry partnerships to accomplish the mission. NASA is not a regulatory agency, and it does not act as a competitor with the industry. However, NASA does play an important role in R&D and being an important customer for the industry.

At the Space Council, we look at the government’s role in space, we look at R&D work that may be too expensive, difficult or risky for the private sector. We see government as the first buyer of many new technologies. We work to provide a regulatory environment that is stable enough for investors to support new commercial ventures in space.

How do you see the New Space industry performing in the US?

The amount of venture capital and private investment flowing into the space sector has been good. Of course, we have areas of over-capacity — there are many small launch companies, and all of them will not survive; we have multiple proposals for mega constellations, and not all of them will survive either. But then, that’s part of the market process. For commercial companies, there are a lot of advantages of operating in the United States in terms access to our legal system, access to capital and availability of talent. We must make sure that US regulations keep up with the speed of ongoing innovations. The market is evolving much more rapidly than the regulations, which is not good, because if you do not have a stable and predictable system, then eventually investments and money become hard to come by as risks increase.

Some people in the IT industry are comfortable with the lack of clear regulations, but in the space industry, projects are very expensive and can have dual use applications (i.e., civil and military), and so you want to have a stable and predictable environment. It’s not like building a new website or a small app for iPhone. The stakes are a lot higher. The main challenge in the US is to make sure that we continue to be a good place to do business based on a clear and responsive regulatory structure.

"Some people in the IT industry are comfortable with the lack of clear regulations, but in the space industry, projects are very expensive and can have dual use applications (i.e., civil and military), and so you want to have a stable and predictable environment. It’s not like building a new website or a small app for iPhone. The stakes are a lot higher"

Can you throw light on some of the regulatory issues that have been addressed in the past couple of years?

The President issued the second Space Policy Directive that dealt with commercial space regulatory reform. There have been three principal reforms, the first one focusing on updating our commercial launch license processes. Right now, we have reusable rockets — previously they were expended. We have rockets that operate out of the East and West Coasts. We have higher launch rates, and so the demand for licenses overall has gone up. This is an area where a lot of reforms are needed, and we are working on that. We hope to have regulations out by next September for public comment and go final a little bit after that.

The other area we are working on is commercial remote sensing. We have higher spatial resolution systems which we have been dealing with for a long time. We also have new sensors, hyperspectral sensors and radio frequency mapping from space. Again, the speed and the number of things coming through has been stressing the licensing system, so we are trying to make it more streamlined. And finally, we are looking at export controls, where the technology keeps changing. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plays a strong role in satellite licensing, but they are an independent regulatory commission, and so they have their own rules and procedures that are independent of what the administration does. In the future, we would like to see how we can make changes to make more companies want to operate and license communications satellites in the United States.

Can you elaborate a bit on the work being done in the sphere of new GPS regulations?

We are doing a policy review on GPS. There is a 2004 space-based position navigation timing policy that we are updating. We have updates dealing with space applications — GPS being used deep in space, almost to the Moon, so we are dealing with space navigation. We also have had discussions about how to protect infrastructure that relies on GPS and other position, navigation, and timing systems. We have a dialogue going on with FCC so that we can protect the GPS spectrum because it is critical for all kinds of IT systems. But at the same time, we have companies who are interested in rolling out mobile broadband systems. We have to make sure that both these services coexist without interference, which can be a challenge. Everybody wants spectrum, but there is only one radio frequency band.

There was a very interesting article in Bloomberg that the world economy runs on GPS, which does not have a backup. How do you see that?

GPS is a fairly unique system. There are several countries offering their own versions of it, but the problem is that they are all space-based, so their signals are quite weak. They are not all equal in terms of market acceptance. But it is easy to make a multi GNSS chip that can accept and process all these different signals. GPS is still the most trusted system because of the performance it has demonstrated. It has earned global trust and the other systems will need to earn that trust as well. What is needed is not a backup for GPS, but different complementary augmentations. In your phone, you have a GPS system, which also picks up Wi-Fi networks, cell networks and data from a wide variety of different systems. So, having a more resilient position navigation timing infrastructure where GPS is still the fundamental backbone is what we need.

Industry 4.0 and Space 4.0 are often viewed as intertwined and they also have the same agenda. Will it be appropriate to say both are mutually reinforcing, or do you see Space 4.0 as a fundamental function of Industry 4.0?

It is hard to divide things into areas like that. What we are witnessing in the space sector is the impact of different disruptive technologies. GPS grew in the 1990s by leveraging IT developments that took place in Silicon Valley, and we eventually went from having GPS devices as separate boxes to being embedded into our cell phones. If we look at remote sensing, it’s prohibitive to move large amounts of data, so people have built access to large data cubes. We have Cloud storage and massive amounts of data that we now interrogate. So, we don’t move the data, but we interrogate the data cubes. We are also taking advantage of data analytic techniques that are driving the remote sensing industry. Beyond IT, one of the more exciting areas in space is additive manufacturing. We are looking at 3D manufacturing techniques, layering techniques, etc. In each of these technology disruptions, what has happened is that recent developments have increased the productivity of the underlying technology. For instance, GPS took space technologies and improved the efficiency of traditional industries like construction, farming and transportation.

Geographic data and remote sensing, combined with GPS, is improving the productivity of all kinds of global infrastructures. In the space realm, we have benefited enormously. Our satellites have become smaller and more capable. We are seeing how new manufacturing techniques like additive manufacturing have the capability to revolutionize launch vehicles. Just look at the production lines of satellites: instead of each satellite being hand crafted, we are moving towards factory production. Innovations in areas like IT, Cloud computing and additive manufacturing are transforming space industries that in turn are developing new capabilities. Innovation is more of a complex ecosystem then a series of separate eras.

Space has so far been immune to geopolitics, but with a spurt in decentralized techniques like Cloud, connected infrastructure and Blockchain, do you think political turbulence can impact the space industry?

The space industry has historically been driven by geopolitics. The US race to the Moon and the stimulation of space industry in the 1960s were driven by geopolitical rivalry with the Soviet Union. The creation of launch vehicles and satellite industry was also driven by geopolitics. The desire to connect the rest of the world through satellites, which is pretty much a commercial activity now, was also affected by the fact that the Soviet Union wanted to limit the free flow of information. The importance of communicating with the developing world more freely and openly, with the help of satellite communications, was clearly driven by geopolitical as well as commercial reasons. After 9/11, the main geopolitical problem was the rise of non-state actors. Chaos and terrorism emerged as grave issues for nation states, and space systems provided information to military and police forces to contain them. If you look at US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, space is crucial to everything they do.

In the last few years, NASA has consistently reduced the budget for Earth Observation, while focusing on deeper space and outer space. Given issues like climate change, do you think this is an area that needs to be looked into?

NASA has continued to fund a strong program of Earth science research. The Earth science budget is quite healthy, but of course, scientists always want to do more. The agency likes to do the first of something; they like to be the pioneer. They are less adept at the ongoing operations for systems that are not central to NASA’s mission. So, for that you would use NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to operate weather satellites rather than NASA. It is not clear which agency, NASA or NOAA, should be responsible for ongoing operation of the exquisite, highly complex space systems needed for Climate Change monitoring. If you look at what Europe has been doing in the Copernicus program, that’s an example where they are operating really complex sophisticated systems, but in a sustained kind of way. That may be the best model in terms of the division of labor. We have to have weather predictions, so that’s going to be NOAA’s job. NASA’s job will be to continue to innovate and create new sensors and new capabilities. The future location of operational climate monitoring systems is uncertain.