Aerospace & Defense

Secretary Wilbur Ross: Creating a 'one-stop shop for space' at the Commerce Department

Key Points
  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross revealed more Tuesday about how his department will become "a one-stop shop" for space regulations.
  • The Commerce Department also plans to work with the existing regulations enforced by the FAA and FCC.
  • Ross used SpaceX as an example of the reforms the Commerce Department is working to implement.
Space tourism is big business: Wilbur Ross

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced more details Tuesday about how his department will become "a one-stop shop" for regulating the burgeoning space industry.

The Commerce Department also plans to work with the existing regulations enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission, Ross said.

"The Department is repositioning and consolidating all of its space commerce functions under my direct supervision in the Office of the Secretary," Ross said during a speech at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"Commerce is developing regulatory and statutory proposals for a mission authorization framework for all commercial space activities, other than [FAA] launch and re-entry regulations and spectrum regulated by the FCC," Ross said.

Regulation has been an often-heard complaint from those in the commercial space industry. Last October, at the first National Space Council meeting, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell slammed existing space regulations.

"If we want to achieve rapid progress in space, the U.S. government must remove bureaucratic practices that run counter to innovation and speed," Shotwell said.

Shotwell said SpaceX was "working well" with the FAA but noted that "it requires heroics" for vehicle operators to adjust rocket launch licenses.

"You have to basically apply for a new license" if an operator makes a change such as switching launch pads at a spaceport, Shotwell said.

Ross used SpaceX on Tuesday as an example "of how commercial activity in space is outpacing government regulation." He talked about the company's successful launch from California in March, which saw its launch webcast cut short by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulations.

"The law requires authorization of camera activity from objects in Earth-orbit to protect U.S. national security interests," Ross said. "However, SpaceX was not scanning the features of the Earth nor examining the bounds of its orbit."

Ross said he met with several satellite industry executives to work on fixing another critical bottleneck for commercial space in the regulatory process. Ross said the Commerce Department is seeing improvements already in the turnaround time for approving some satellite operating licenses due to a new agreement with the Pentagon. Before the implementation of the agreement, Ross said the average time from application to receiving a license was 210 days. After the agreement, the average time has reduced "over 50 percent," Ross said, to an average of 91 days.

"Government can and must do better," Ross said. "It shouldn't take longer to get a license than it does to design a rocket or a satellite."

The secretary also repeated Vice President Mike Pence's announcement Monday that the Commerce Department will tackle the persistent problem of space debris in orbit around the Earth. Satellite constellations are in development — such as SpaceX's plan to launch 4,425 of its own broadband satellites — which will put thousands of new spacecraft around the Earth, and Ross emphasized the need for "best practice and standards" to be put in place.

"We must establish a plan for space traffic management and coordination," Ross added.