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GAO: Lack of National Space Policy Impacts U.S. Commercial Launch Industry

By | December 3, 2009
      [Satellite News 12-04-09] The lack of a comprehensive U.S. national space launch strategy and unified oversight council is obstructing the domestic commercial launch industry’s ability to grow and compete, according to congressional testimony from U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Director Gerald Dillingham, released Dec. 2.
          In the report, “Commercial Space Transportation,” Dillingham listed numerous government agencies involved in the commercial launch process, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of commercial space launches, NASA’s scientific space activities, the U.S. Department of Defense’s national security space launches, the U.S. State Department’s involvement in international trade issues, and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s advocacy and promotion of the industry.
          “According to the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences, aligning the strategies of the various civil and national security space agencies will address many current issues arising from or exacerbated by the current uncoordinated, overlapping and unilateral strategies,” Dillingham said in the report.
          The GAO’s findings echo the suggested policy of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), including the revival of the U.S. National Aerospace Council to streamline oversight and communication. In January, AIA CEO Marion Blakey laid out the association’s mission in a report, “The Role of Space in Addressing America’s National Priorities,” which envisioned a singular, comprehensive body to overlook matters related to the U.S. space program.
           “I am very pleased that [U.S. President] Barack Obama has promised to revive the National Aerospace Council,” said Blakey. “After the 1970s, the council’s activity has been sporadic. We need an outside, non-partisan organization to coordinate space policies across all agencies and we need a national budget that provides robust and stable funding towards space.”
          However, despite promises to revive the council during the presidential campaign, the Obama administration has yet to do so. In April, the White House announced the creation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and appointed 20 members to its board — none of whom have experience in the commercial space industry or have direct expertise over space policy. The council does, however, include Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
          The GAO identified several gaps in federal policy for commercial space launches in its report. According to Dillingham, while the FAA has safety oversight responsibility for the launch and re-entry of commercial space vehicles, “agency officials told us that no federal entity has oversight of orbital operations, including the collision hazard while in orbit posed by satellites and debris, such as spent rocket stages, defunct satellites and paint flakes from orbiting objects.”
          Dillingham said that in speaking with senior officials at the FAA and the Department of Commerce, the need for an overall U.S. space launch policy that includes commercial space launches, “is being discussed within the U.S. Department of Transportation and across departments as part of the administration’s review of national space activities, but the development of a national policy has not yet begun.”
           Government inaction in 2009 may continue to contribute to the shrinking U.S. launch industry. Out of the 28 commercial launches that took place in 2008, U.S. companies performed only six. In 2009, only four commercial rockets were launched in the United States, down from 16 in 2008, according to the GAO report.
          In a statement calling for increased government commitment to domestic commercial launch capabilities, AIA Vice President of Space Systems J.P. Stevens warned the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation that time is running short. “As space launch capabilities have been developed by other nations, the U.S. share of commercial launches has decreased significantly. … Every other nation with commercial space launch capabilities provides some form of government indemnification against third-party liability. Indemnification expires in 29 days. We definitely need the Senate to act before the end of the year,” he said.

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