On February 14th, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched 104 satellites into orbit. The feat set a record for the largest number of satellites deployed at once, beating out the 37 launched by Russia in 2014. The ISRO launch also helped remote imaging company Planet (formerly Planet Labs) set the record for the largest commercially-run satellite fleet in orbit. More important than records, however, is what the launch revealed about the growing globalization of space capabilities. If the United States does not orient its policies to account for this global competition, its lead in commercial space will erode.
The launch of 88 satellites for Planet should now allow the company to photograph Earth’s entire landmass every day. The effort behind this capability demonstrates that commercial companies believe the commercial remote imaging market is viable enough to push development. Planet is an American company based in San Francisco, but it crucially went overseas for its launch. This is because, while the United States has long captured global attention for its launch systems, other countries are starting to steal the limelight.
India in particular has focused on cheap launches, and has quickly made inroads into the global launch market. The country supports its launch industry (as do many countries), but in the long run it may benefit more from having a less restrictive regulatory system than the United States. If the United States cannot reduce launch costs and increase launch tempo, it may slowly lose market share. When it comes to demand for launches, if the United States does not streamline its regulatory system, looser regulations and lower costs overseas may force innovative space companies abroad.
On the launch side, the United States benefits from a burgeoning competitive launch market. This has been driving down costs, and getting reusability from boosters may drive costs down even further. The risk in the United States is that launch companies may not be able to provide them on demand for companies that need them. Part of this will be a technological development question, but part will be the responsiveness of the regulatory system. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last year that examined the growing strain on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in overseeing U.S. launch activities.
To handle growing demand, the office handling space launch in the FAA—the Office of Commercial Space Transportation—will need a review of its budget and staffing levels. More importantly, if the United States wants to boost its commercial launch tempo, the government will need to clarify the role of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. At the moment, there is growing ambiguity within the FAA over where decisions on space launch will be made. With the need to integrate space launch in the national airspace, other FAA offices like the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) are ramping up their engagement on commercial space.
Integration with the national airspace is important. However, in the deliberations between how to merge a maturing market (commercial space launch) with a mature market (air travel), the two markets should not be represented by the same overarching agency. Elevating the Office of Commercial Space Transportation out of the FAA and making it a separate bureau in the Department of Transportation (DOT) would improve these deliberations by separating the two sides of the discussion. An elevated space bureau in the DOT would also be under greater Congressional oversight, and could better provide information on needed funding and staff levels. An elevated bureau would also enable increased focus on possible reforms to regulations over commercial launch that might increase potential launch tempos and improve U.S. launch competitiveness.
But the United States needs to focus on more than just the launch side of the space economy. Launches will be driven by commercial demand, so the health of non-launch space markets will also be important. However, some of America’s regulations are overly restrictive and outdated. This has driven some markets completely abroad, such as commercial provision of synthetic aperture radar (SAR). With the rise of capabilities abroad, such as remote imaging, American companies are asking agencies to ease regulations to help them stay competitive. There have been improvements, but without further changes, the United States may continue to lose space market share to foreign competitors.
Lessons from the past—the decisions around SAR, for example—must also be remembered in conversations for new space missions. The possibility that space companies may be able to undertake tasks like space resource extraction, or on-orbit servicing, has led to debates over how the government should oversee these operations. These missions do not currently have an application process for a license, which has led some companies to worry about regulatory certainty. They do not want to raise capital and start engineering if the government may shut down the mission in the future. On the other hand, there are wider concerns that new regulations may do what previous regulations have done and push markets abroad if they are too draconian or costly to comply with.
It may be that Congress does need to provide new authorities to approve as-of-yet uncovered missions. However, in doing so Congress should orient those authorities towards a presumption of approval. Agency rules developed for new authorities should ensure a transparent process with a clear deadline. The burden should be on the agency to demonstrate why a mission should not move forward, not on a company to demonstrate why it should.
The ISRO rocket launch by itself is not a threat to the ingenuity and expertise that underpins America’s space economy. Even with its regulatory issues, the United States is still the dominant country in space. The launch is, however, a sign of changing times, and that change will likely accelerate. The global competition is only heating up, with China responding to India’s success by pointing out how much farther ahead the Chinese space program is.
With national prestige and economic benefits on the line, more countries will ramp up their use of space. To keep innovative technologies and companies in America, the United States must continually sharpen its competitiveness. Without regulatory reform—both organizationally and in oversight itself—the United States may find itself being left behind.