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Consolidating the commercial space mission authorization regime.

US regulation requires commercial space firms to navigate a complex web of federal agencies. Is there another way? We take a look at possible options.





A study produced by graduate students at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute is providing a deep look at the commercial space mission authorization regime. Current US regulation requires commercial space firms to navigate a complex web of federal agencies. This study looks at how the system could be consolidated. We speak to the three of the study’s authors; Zeke Clayson, Shiv Patel and Frank Spellman.

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>> Alice Carruth: Welcome to T-minus Deep Space from N2K networks. I'm Alice Carruth, producer of the T-minus Space daily podcast. Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content for a deeper look into some of the topics we cover on our daily program.

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A study produced by graduate students at George Washington University Space Policy Institute is providing a deep look at the commercial space mission authorization regime. Current US regulation requires commercial space firms to navigate a complex web of federal agencies. This study looks at how the system could be consolidated. We speak to three of the study's authors, Zeke Clayson, Shiv Patel, and Frank Spellman.

>> Zeke Clayson: I'm Zeke Clayson. And I'm Base Operations Officer for the Army. I've been working with Shiv and Frank for about two years through our grad school program at George Washington University. And it was through that program that this paper kind of came to be as a capstone. Had a wide range of options. Sort of key point for us was to find a client that had something that we could work on for them that would relate to space policy in some way. And so, we went through looking through several clients. And we settled on the Defense Innovation Unit, DIU, who had, again, several options. But one of the ones that was the most interesting to us and that they found was sort of a common concern among a lot of the companies with whom they work was that getting authorization to do space missions, particularly novel space missions that we don't necessarily have a lot of experience in has been something of an issue that people have been looking at for a long time to try to facilitate using that process. And we just haven't quite finalized it yet. There's a lot of ideas in the works. And so, we wanted to sort of take our stab at what ideal regime, or at least the ideal next step for the space mission authorization regime would look like.

>> Alice Carruth: So, Shiv, do you want to talk a little bit more about that partnership you have with DIU? How did you guys find that partnership? And you know, what is it you are hoping to achieve with this paper?

>> Shiv Patel: Yeah, hey. Shiv Patel here. So, I work at a company that has done work with DIU in the past. And just being in industry and piggybacking off what Zeke just said. It's a pretty hot topic issue right now. And there's legislation moving in congress that any industry that you go to, people are always talking about, you know, their difficulties with getting something authorized. A novel concept or some sort of concept that doesn't neatly fit the status quo. So, we took a look. And we kind of went into this process knowing that we wanted to tackle an issue that's being talked about right now. So, mission authorization naturally is at the top of our heads. And we started sorting through different potential clients that we could engage with in order to get this done. And that DIU came up as one that really works with industry and tries to help them navigate, you know, some of this gridlock, if you will. I guess that's an appropriate word for it, on getting over the finish line for an authorization concept. So, that's a little bit about how we went to DIU. It was actually Zeke that reached out first. And then we just went from there. They were super receptive of working with us on the capstone. And they actually worked with NSIN, that's the National Security Innovation Network, in order to assist, you know, programs like ours that are looking for relevant capstone topics.

>> Alice Carruth: So, Frank, we've talked about what this problem is. Can you talk us through what it is that most of these space startups are facing in the industry? And what it is you were trying to achieve with this research paper?

>> Frank Spellman: Yes, sure. So, one of the things that we -- that we like to be clear about is that the current regime is a good regime. Like, it works for a lot of people. It's the gold standard for the space industry in the United States and the world. So, it's not as if we're, you know, to say that this an abject failure of a system. It works. And it works well. But that's not to say that there can't be improvements. Specifically for, you know, nascent commercial companies. And that's the focus of this. DIU, you know, they're the client for this paper. And they asked that we look through the lens of a commercial company, in particular new ones. And the new ones that have new technologies that nobody really understands how to regulate or how to monitor or how to supervise continually in space. And so, yes. Some of these companies are having problems, you know, getting licenses. Even just navigating the regulatory regime. You know, who do we go to? Do we have to hire a consultant to do this for us? Is there advantages to being a big traditional aerospace company versus a new one? We found, yeah, there were. And so, we looked through this, again, through the lens of a commercial company and said, "What would be the best way to form a regime that doesn't change a whole lot, that allows sort of the current responsibilities to remain in place, but makes it easier, more amenable for commercial companies to show up and say, 'Hey, we have this really cool idea. Can we get authorized to launch?'" Right now, the answer to that is who do we go to? We don't know. Is this technology even our wheelhouse? What are the laws that require, you know, supervision of these technologies? And they're all different. And they're all brand new. So, really, the answer is we don't know. It's not so much, you know, changing the now as it is preparing for what's coming. And what's coming in the future are new and innovative technologies that currently have no guidance or regulation. And so, we took a look, really. You know, we -- so, we work in the industry. We also consulted a lot of industry people. You know, we're at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. We have access to these folks. We're able to interview them, get a lot of information and put together sort of a status quo. What it looks like now. Here are some of the options that we think are solid. And here's our recommendation. Our recommendation, of course, was to have the Department of Commerce Office of Space Commerce take lead in this. And essentially authorize them to be the only interface between, you know, licensing new missions, new technologies, and the commercial companies. We think that they're already prepared to do this. Of course, it would take a little, you know, a little bit of money and maybe some manpower here or there. But we think that they're the best group to assume responsibility for ensuring the growth of the commercial space industry in the United States.

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>> Alice Carruth: We'll be right back.

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I think what we really liked about your paper was this is a common theme amongst the industry. And a lot of people talked about it and complained about the process. But what you offered up were options. Zeke, do you want to talk us through some of the options of the things that you guys came up with from this research study and how you kind of came to your final conclusion?

>> Zeke Clayson: Sure. So, one of the -- the first option that we looked at was essentially retaining the status quo. We wanted to make sure that we presented this as an option and dealt with it honestly. Because like Frank said, the current situation has enabled the United States to become by far the leading commercial space nation in the world. And so, we don't want to make it look like the status quo is terrible. And we don't want to pretend like there would be no cost with changing the status quo and things like that. So, that's really option one is to say, look, the status quo, of course there are problems. There's going to be problems no matter what the regime ends up being. So, should it -- would it be best to just say, hey, leave well enough alone and proceed as is. One of the things that we looked at, I guess sort of against that argument was because, was that, industry is complaining to some extent. And they're complaining for a reason. There is a lot of complexity. And a lot -- some of the government side that we did interview acknowledged that there is a lot of complexity in this regime, particularly with these novel space missions that are starting to become more and more common. And so, looking at the status quo, we said -- we took that. We wanted to retain the good parts of the status quo. The good things that the regulators are doing that everybody acknowledges has to be done, that's good to be done. And then sort of reorganize that while costing the least, ostensibly. Not money wise, but in terms facilitating operations. So, the status quo just isn't optimal right now, even though it's okay. So, we wanted to take the good parts of it and then build on those.

>> Alice Carruth: Shiv, do you want to add to that?

>> Shiv Patel: Yeah, absolutely. So, through our research we kind of noticed that what we're looking at here in regards to the status quo, it involves the rise of a novel mission. And then bureaucracy engaging in flexibility to authorize it. So, it's an iterative approach where we're reactive with regulations instead of proactive. And yeah, as Zeke said, with that approach, we lead the world in payloads launched by country. The US does. And really, going back to what Frank said, this is really a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach that we took a look at in maintaining the status quo, among our other suggestions, of course.

>> Alice Carruth: You want to add to that, Zeke?

>> Zeke Patel: Yeah, so just sort of building on that. Just an example of what Shiv was talking about. We included in our paper the space logistics mission, who had a repair satellite that they were going to send out that would be incredibly useful to everyone in the industry and the future of sort of commercial space operations. But no one knew who was going to authorize that and who was going to be the maintainer under Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty. And so, they just sort of figured it out. Like Shiv said, it's flexibility and the concept of a light touch in terms of regulation is what they dealt with. So, they eventually enabled this mission. But it took a long time and there was a lot of confusion. And that can cost particularly novel companies that don't have a lot of capital on hand money and time that they just don't have when they're trying to do these new innovative things.

>> Alice Carruth: Frank, I think you've probably got more to add to that as well. But I also wanted to throw in there the idea of, you know, well, how has industry reacted to this paper? You know, what is it you were hoping that will be achieved with it?

>> Frank Spellman: Well, so I'll touch just briefly on that. And that is the industry has reacted well. We've been, you know, contacted by a lot of folks. We aren't necessarily sure how to handle this. We are balancing, you know, doing this as a student group versus now some of us being out of school and you know, back to work. So, we're figuring that out. But people are generally excited about it. And it's because there has been pent up frustrations. And nothing has been done so far. So, understanding there's a little bit of movement, you know, on the regulatory side to get something done. But again, until it happens, we're going to keep fighting for it. I did want to go into a little bit more detail about your previous question about the options. And of course, the status quo is do nothing and let it happen -- you know, let it ride. And that is an ad hoc, you know, process. Of course, a lot of this involves launch and reentry. So, the FAA is involved. A lot of it involves communications. So, the FCC is involved. So, some of the options we went with were, you know, task the FAA with doing this, entirely. Or task the FCC with doing this, entirely. Again, we didn't think -- while they are a vital part of the process currently, and should be in the future -- we didn't think that they should be the lead in this, especially when it comes to commercial companies. And so, that's why we went with the Office of Space Commerce for the recommendation.

>> Alice Carruth: So, Shiv, I just want to go back to -- you obviously do work in the commercial space industry. How have your colleagues reacted to the outcome of this paper? Have they -- do they agree with you? Is this something that you're finding is an agreeable response to them?

>> Shiv Patel: Yeah. So, in regards to the comments from industry, what we initially heard was, "Hey, this was a really good distillation of a pretty complex issue." And so, it helped people that aren't really well versed in what the regulatory process looks like, you know? It's your engineers that are on the floor building hardware that they leave the regulatory approvals to the gov affairs folks. And so, what we're learning is that people with technical backgrounds really receive this super well because they didn't -- a lot of them, and you know, I can't speak for all of them. But some of them aren't really well versed in what that process looks like. So, in the beginning, it was really, "Hey, like great job. You taught me about something that we really didn't know what was going on because it's on the other side of the company." And really, that was initially. Second, people are asking, "Okay, like what can we do now, right?" And it's the same group of people there that don't really have hands on on the regulatory side, the DC side. And so, what we're seeing is people are more interested in what we can do now as, you know, three students who just completed -- or four students who just completed this paper and this capstone project. And one thing that I always direct companies to is like, "Hey, if you really like this paper, maybe you can send it over to some of the policy makers on the Hill who are working on legislation or who are tracking mission authorization on their radars. Maybe, you know, maybe the Commerce Committee over on the Senate side." And really, it starts with industry engagement, right? It's one thing for us as a consortium of students to send this over to the Hill. But it's another to have the same issue, the same paper, and the same solutions being pushed over to the Hill as well. So, that's my take on it.

>> Alice Carruth: I'm going to throw this last one out to all of you to kind of answer. Now, it sounds a bit like you don't know what to do with it. Now you've come up with this really great paper. And it's almost like it's made its own little journey. And you don't really know where it's going to. But where do you want to see this going? Where do you think you want to navigate it? Where do you think this is going to go in the future?

>> Frank Spellman: Yeah. I guess I'll start. I -- you know, at the end of the day, what this is going to require is congressional authorization to essentially augment the regime. It's going to have to come from within the committees, the staff, the folks on the Hill to want to change this. To understand that there is a need to change this. And that's what we're doing. I think this has recently sort of been the most recent peak of the discussion on the Hill and in the industry. And folks are saying, "Yes, this is important. This is important. We're working on it." We want to see something happen. And we want to not see the United States fall behind in the commercial industry. We know there's others that are developing, you know, space capabilities, other countries. We want to maintain our leadership in space. And we think that enabling new innovative concepts in space is vital to that. And if something doesn't change, and doesn't change soon, then we will face issues and we will face many challenges to achieving that.

>> Zeke Clayson: And then, just additionally on the like pragmatic side of getting this -- getting something done. There's been a lot of talk recently about -- over the last four or five years or so, about getting this regulatory regime into a one-stop shop. Where everything is consolidated in one place. And other agencies don't have any involvement. And we wanted to make sure that we presented an option that gives the benefits of a one-stop shop like that without the drawbacks. And show that there is an alternative available that gives you the sort of ease for companies of a one-stop shop but also maintains the equities across the federal government so there's not like bureaucratic intransigence or anything like that to that sort of easy, for lack of a better word, regime on commercial companies. And so, that's why our recommendation of consolidating things under the Department of Commerce but ensuring that every other agency that currently has equities remains involved just through the department of commerce and letting the Department of Commerce be the interface with the companies, showing that there is an alternative available that does give those benefits without a lot of the drawbacks that people brought up before.

>> Shiv Patel: Yeah. So, I'll just say that in order to see what's next, we've got to look at, you know, what work has been done by the government to date. But before we get to that, I'll just say from a paper standpoint, we don't want this article to fade -- to fade away. We want to make sure that this is still being circulated as these conversations are going on. But going back to the initial point. So, the White House actually opened up a listening session on this. You know, this was something that we pulled for in informing this paper. And it was industry providing feedback in a public comment on a mission authorization and continuing supervision. So, that was the listening session. The ideas are there. And different companies have different ideas on how to tackle this issue. What's next is, you know, for the White House, that's the question. What's next, right? We have the ideas. They're in a listening session. You know, a group of four students were able to compile them into a paper. But those ideas are floating now. So, we want to keep this paper in circulation so it can go and inform the decisions. Maybe a rule making, or a notice of proposed rulemaking. Or even text for policy makers to consider and have this paper inform that. So, really, it's about keeping this in circulation. I think talking about it on a podcast is a great way to do that. So, we're checking that box.

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>> Alice Carruth: That's it for T-Minus Deep Space for September the 16th, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of this podcast. You can email us at space@n2k.com or submit the survey in the show notes. Your feedback ensures we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. This episode was mixed by Elliott Peltzman and Tre Hester with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. Our chief intelligence officer is Eric Tillman. And I'm Alice Carruth. Thanks for listening.

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