The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft lands with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., on Aug. 2.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft lands with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., on Aug. 2. Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP

Managing Space Traffic in an Increasingly Congested Orbit

Report looks at how the federal government can best meet its responsibility for improving space situational awareness and coordinating space traffic management activities. 

The nation recently watched an historic event when SpaceX, a private “New Space” commercial company in the business of launching and managing assets in orbit, successfully returned astronauts to Earth. The mission launch, however, had not gone as smoothly, as overcast weather forced SpaceX to reschedule, but not just to the next clear day.

Instead, the next available date was determined by two key factors: the physics of efficiently reaching the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral and, importantly, conducting a preflight analysis to ensure there were no conjunctions–a close approach of two or more space objects that might result in a collision­–for the Crew Dragon on its ascent to dock with the space station.

Space may appear endless, but opportunities to safely place and maintain an object in Earth’s orbit are not. The risk of collisions between objects in space is very real, and major collisions have already occurred. Even one collision can produce a dangerous debris field that can cripple a range of critical capabilities upon which we depend, such as global communications and navigation, and endanger the astronauts stationed in the International Space Station. In addition, the financial consequences could be monumental. 

Understanding where objects are (and will be) in space, sharing that information so that satellite operators can avoid collisions and establishing the “rules of the road” among the community of space users is called space traffic management, and it is a critical domain for government action. 

The Defense Department–an early pioneer in space with ballistic missile warning systems that could provide “space situational awareness”–has historically provided the global community with satellite and debris location information. However, as the number of objects in orbit increases, space situational awareness as a service from Defense is no longer adequate. In 2018, culminating a lengthy interagency policy development process, the Trump administration issued Space Policy Directive 3, transferring responsibility for improving space situational awareness and coordinating space traffic management activities to the Commerce Department. 

Uncertain about the administration’s answer (many think NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration or even Defense are the more appropriate situational awareness and traffic management providers) and about the related costs, Congress asked the National Academy of Public Administration for an independent assessment. After months of thorough examination and analysis of several candidate agencies for this important role, the academy’s five-member panel has issued its unanimously adopted report.

While the Commerce Department ultimately scored highest in our analysis, the “which agency” question ought not obscure two more urgent issues.  There is an imperative to act now, and the concept for exercising the federal government’s space situational awareness and traffic management responsibilities must not only be effective, but also should stimulate innovation, both in situational awareness/traffic management and in space-based commerce.

The space economy is significant in scope and size. More than 500,000 objects already orbit in space, including 2,800 active satellites. The number of new objects launched per year may increase to as many as 1,100 by 2025. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports global space activity to be worth $415 billion in 2019 with commercial revenues making up some 80% of this activity. 

The commercial space sector is highly innovative, reducing costs and bringing new products and services to the market. In recent years, commercial space companies have accelerated development cycles and reduced the costs of activities such as rocket launches, space situational awareness, on-orbit servicing and space exploration. Notably, commercial companies have invested in innovations in areas such as miniaturization, satellite mass-production and use of commercial off-the shelf components to produce capable lightweight satellites. Taken together, the space economy is creating new entrants serving new markets with modern, more robust value networks.

But when each party in this growing body of users acts in its own self-interest, the unintended result is a polluted, dangerous orbital space environment. Traditional economic analysis predicts that where exclusion is difficult, users will often overharvest the common resource, potentially destroying it in the process. We need to ensure this is not the case.

While the domain of space is unique in many respects, public and private users of space could productively operate and innovate in a way that supports sustainable self-governance. New Space companies are increasingly willing to share information and take steps to sustain the orbital commons, such as developing reliable plans for post-mission disposal, making investments in automated collision avoidance, and building in the capability of high-precision orbit knowledge. Some are willing, even seeking, to share position and maneuver data.

A challenge for these “good citizens” is to encourage broader acceptance and observance of orbital hygiene among other commercial and international actors. And herein lies the opportunity for effective government intervention. 

The method of government intervention increasingly in use is a network model, in which the government works collaboratively with its partners in the safe use of space, stimulates development of the rules governing use of the common resource, creates incentives for rule adoption and compliance through the presence and actions of the insurance and liability systems and through its own licensing and permitting authorities, and, when necessary, enforces the rules through its regulatory power. 

The method selected for financing the government’s activities will also contribute to its effectiveness.  While there is clearly a public good in providing a basic level of space situational awareness so that users of space can avoid collisions or electromagnetic interference, there are also opportunities where fees could be employed to support much of the cost of the government’s activities. This is an effective and efficient model in use for air traffic control across much of the globe outside of the United States. 

As the lead custodian of the common resource of space, the U.S. government has the primary obligation to ensure that orbital hygiene standards are developed, adopted and evolve to keep pace with innovation in space commerce and technologies, thus guaranteeing for future generations the viability of this vital common resource. To maintain that leadership, which supports vital U.S. national interests, the Congress must act promptly. Our report lays out an effective way ahead. 

Academy Panel Chairman Michael Dominguez is a former senior Defense Department official who served as acting secretary of the Air Force and DoD executive agent for space. Other panel members include Martin Faga, the former assistant secretary of the Air Force for space; Jane Fountain, the director of the National Center for Digital Government at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; Patrick Kennedy, a former senior State Department official; and Sean O’Keefe, the former administrator of NASA and former secretary of the U.S. Navy. All are fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration.