Commercial space station developers seek to clarify regulations

WASHINGTON — Companies working on commercial space stations aiming to succeed the International Space Station say they need more clarity from the federal government about who will regulate it and how.

During team discussions at a Beyond Earth symposium here on October 13, representatives of several companies operating in commercial space stations said they had to deal with an “alphabetically set” of agencies, none of which today has the authority to oversee their business operations as required under Outer Space Treaty.

said Mike Gold, executive vice president of civil space and external affairs for Redwire Space, a partner in the Orbital Reef commercial space station concept. “We need predictability, we need clarity and we need certainty in terms of organizational structure.”

No federal agency today has the authority to provide the authorization and continued supervision of commercial space stations required by Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty. Similar power gaps exist for other emerging commercial space fields, such as satellite servicing and lunar landers.

“We have to be wary of the set of absolute agencies we have to go to to conduct our operations,” he said. They include the Federal Communications Commission for communications licenses, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for remote sensing licenses and the Federal Aviation Administration for launch licenses and payload reviews. These reviews could include other agencies, such as the Departments of Commerce and Defense.

“It’s an extraordinary challenge,” he said. “It is critical that we consolidate and simplify not only because it makes it easier for the private sector, but it will also result in better safety and better innovation.”

These problems grow even more as companies make progress toward the first launches of space station elements, although there have been some fluctuations in the schedule. Marie-Lynn Dittmar, head of government and external relations at Axiom Space, said her company now plans to launch the first commercial module to be installed on the International Space Station in late 2025, about a year later than previously planned. She said the company “rearranged” that timeline only as it went through a critical design review for the unit. The second unit, a copy of the first, will follow in six to eight months.

When asked about the regulatory changes required to enable the commercial space station of Axiom and others, she noted that many of the issues are interconnected. The main issue, though, is delegating the task. “I want to understand how that will be framed, and where that will fall, because there are a lot of other issues that are directly connected to it.”

Gould said the assignment included knowing how to do the “continuous supervision” that Article 6. He called for a “self-certification” approach to it. “We’re in the driver’s seat and understand technology more than anyone else, so it’s very important, from a regulatory perspective, that the private sector is on the front lines of providing that information to government,” he said.

There is no shortage of concepts on how to carry out task delegation. George Nield, a former associate director of commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, has suggested placing it within the Department of Transportation.

“My recommendation is that we take this opportunity to learn about spaceflight as a means of transportation, just as highways, rail, sea, aviation, and pipelines, and establish an office for commercial space transportation under the direction of the US Department of Transportation,” he said. “This could be a one-stop shop for organizing the space.”

In the near term, just having a checklist of agencies to deal with to get a mission mandate would be helpful, said Eric Stallmer, executive vice president for government affairs and public policy at Voyager Space, which is on the commercial space station Star Lab. “It’s something we can all follow,” he said.

“The sky hasn’t fallen yet,” said Erica Wagner, senior director of emerging space markets at Blue Origin, lead partner at Orbital Reef, noting the success of special astronaut missions like Inspiration4 and Ax-1. “The question is, how do we manage this uncertainty and the risks that come with not having a clear path.”

There are other regulatory issues beyond mission authorization for commercial space station developers to contend with. Gould noted that the International Space Station enjoys exceptions and priority arrangements to export control regulations that commercial space stations will need.

Commercial space stations may also pose challenges to workplace safety and related regulations. Wagner noted that NASA uses functional radiation limits for its astronauts, while terrestrial industries have annual radiation limits. “It doesn’t work very well if you’re going to create a cadre of people who work privately on a space station.”

Those who visit commercial space stations, whether as tourists or researchers, expect some minimum standards of care to ensure their safety, said Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientific officer at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine. It may be too soon, however, for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the branch of the Department of Labor that regulates workplace safety, to get involved.

“I wouldn’t advocate that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration play a role in this, but I do believe there are best practices that can develop into something that benefits any of the providers,” she said, adding that companies would have an incentive to do make sure that customers of commercial terminals have Good experience. “If you want word of mouth, I suggest you work hard at it.”

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