Space situational awareness (SSA), also known as space domain awareness, is becoming increasingly important as more actors launch more objects into space. Debris creation events, like the November 2021 Russian ASAT test, and the rapid launch schedule of mega constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, further complicate the tracking of objects in the space domain and highlight the need for reliable SSA. The U.S. military has long provided free global SSA data; the U.S. Space Command oversees the public tracking of objects in space and shares data globally through Space-Track.org. However, there has been talk in Congress of shifting this authority to a civil government agency for years—either to the Federal Aviation Administration or the Department of Commerce (DoC)—with unwavering supporters fighting for each agency.
In June 2018, Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 named DoC as the civil agency successor to the Department of Defense (DoD) catalog for SSA. Over three years later, the Open Architecture Data Repository (OADR)—the public civilian catalog designated to replace the military catalog—is still not developed and the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) continues to operate with a limited staff led by an acting administrator. This delay in developing OSC is bad: it sends a message that SSA is not a priority for the United States, delays national security priorities for DoD, and threatens the safety of space assets.
Before Congress would give funding to DoC to support taking over this mission from the U.S. military, it mandated a study from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to independently investigate the SSA dilemma. The study re-affirmed the choice made in the executive order: it confirmed not only that DoC is the right place for this new repository to live, due in part to the large increase of commercial activity in space, but also that SSA was so vital that Congress should give the OSC anything it required to properly set up this function. As 2021 comes to a close, Congress has yet to grant sufficient funding to OSC. Further, almost a year into President Biden’s term, OSC is left with an acting administrator and only nine other staff members, not nearly enough support to enact the swift transformation necessary for this mission.
In 2019, DoC requested $10 million in allocated funding for OSC to focus on space traffic management. The office only received $2.3 million, a slight increase from its previous budget. The next year DoC again requested a meaningful increase in funding, backed by the NAPA study which used data provided by the U.S. government. DoC sought $15 million for OSC in its 2021 budget proposal, with the majority of that allocated to build its space traffic management structure. The request included a plan to add 24 positions to OSC—13 reallocated from other departments and 11 new positions. NAPA suggested that the $15 million estimate in 2021 will likely grow to as much as $72.1 million in 2024, underscoring that as the importance of SSA grows, so should the necessary budget to maintain such a vital system. The result was a $10 million budget for FY2021.
Alongside an attempt to receive a viable budget, OSC is also fighting to be moved from under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to report directly to the Secretary of Commerce. In November 2020, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved a Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act, but gutted the act of elevating OSC. The bill did not progress to receive a vote. Introduced in May 2021 once again, the SPACE Act was approved by committee and formally authorized DoC to be in charge of SSA. The SPACE Act was integrated as an amendment to the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, where language suggested that OSC be elevated higher in DoC. While this is slight progress, the edited bill still refused to move the OSC to report under the Commerce Secretary to create a Bureau of Space Commerce as the original bill proposed. The overarching Act was passed in the Senate in June 2021 but has not progressed in the six months since.
The continuous obstruction in proper funding and staff for OSC means that the Space Command must continue providing SSA services. This further delays DoD priorities, as the Pentagon has previously spoken about how it needs to pass on this critical SSA mission and concentrate on more pressing national security matters. DoD is still prioritizing SSA and growing its coalition of partners to increase the reliability of this data. In July 2021, Space Command announced it had signed the 100th commercial agreement to share space data for SSA purposes.
The U.S. Space Command’s mission is to “conduct operations in, from, and through space to deter conflict, and if necessary, defeat aggression, deliver space combat power for the joint/combined force, and defend United States vital interests with allies and partners.” This mission is muddied when it is still responsible for alerting international and commercial satellite operators of possible collisions. A civil agency actor is as necessary in the space domain as it is in the air—today’s SSA system would be akin to the U.S. Air Force managing public air traffic control priorities and collision warnings not only for U.S. aircraft, but for those across most of the globe.
General Dickenson, the Commander of the Space Command, has time and time again reiterated the need for a civil agency responsible for alerting other satellite operators of close calls in the space domain so the military can focus on critical national security issues. Moving SSA capabilities to a civil agency will also make it much easier for other actors to communicate or collaborate with the United States about SSA and will more clearly define U.S. military actions in space.
Currently, Space-Track.org is tracking almost 38,000 objects, including about 19,000 pieces of space debris, and both numbers are only increasing. Satellites are being launched at an unprecedented rate—SpaceX has launched almost 900 satellites in 2021 alone—and there are many other plans to launch mega constellations in the coming years. Events involving space debris are also becoming more common: astronauts on the International Space Station have had to shelter in place, delay spacewalks, and maneuver the station all in just a three-week period due to various pieces of debris. According to analysts, the current DoD system is not capable of handling the increase in on-orbit traffic we will likely see in the next decade. The NAPA study agreed and reported that the current DoD SSA system is “inadequate to achieve safe operations in today’s commercial space environment,” a sentiment General Dickenson has also acknowledged. The continued reliance of critical SSA information on an aging DoD system will endanger all assets in space as the domain becomes more populated. This reinforces the fact that DoC needs to take over the system and immediately reach out to industry to form a more robust system for a future where SSA will be regarded as critical infrastructure.
Without consistent funding, dedicated resources, or adequate staff, the OADR may never make it off the ground. The continuous lack of basic support from Congress to OSC is creating what may be a disastrous backlog as a significant need for civil-run SSA architecture is increasing. As OSC fights to stay alive, the Biden administration released the U.S. Space Priorities Framework in December 2021, which acknowledges an SSA platform “hosted by a U.S. civil agency” on the last page. With no mention of DoC, it raises a question about whether the Biden administration is rethinking the OADR home, which could indicate starting over somewhere new and possibly reversing the slow progress that has been made so far. This disjointed and delayed communication and funding shows that developing a more robust and reliable SSA capability is not a serious priority for the United States. The stalling of adequate resources necessary to facilitate a Commerce-led OADR inadvertently delays national security priorities for DoD and could be disastrous for the future safety of all objects in space—that’s not just a bad idea, it’s a terrible one.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dalton Williams)