Cantwell Focuses on Advancing Technology to Ensure Safety in Commercial Space at Subcommittee Hearing

December 13, 2023

During today's space subcommittee hearing, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, asked witnesses about the technical challenges faced by the federal government in overseeing safety and advancing innovation in outer space activities by private industry. The Committee heard testimony from Pam Melroy, NASA Deputy Administrator; Kelvin Coleman, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation; Richard Dalbello, NOAA Director of Office of Space Commerce and John Hill, DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space and Missile Defense.

Senator Cantwell’s remarks and questions as delivered:

Chair Cantwell: I really want to focus on technology in general and technology risks. I know you represent different viewpoints from the agency side, but I would hope you will be able to quickly, and for the record if necessary, give us a more detailed answer, what do you think are the technology risks with space commercialization?

This Committee played a very big role in the new certification program for the FAA, trying to correct what we thought were some shortages both in workforce and in redundancy issues.

How do you see the commercial space challenge and what do you think are the technological challenges that we really need to focus on from a safety perspective?

We in the Northwest are very proud of the $4.6 billion space industry that has given our economy 13,000 jobs, but we want to get the next phase right, too. How would you characterize those technological challenges from a safety perspective?

Mr. Dalbello: I would be happy to start. We are seeing a use of space at a pace that is surprising, even to those of us who are veterans. As we see the fleets of commercial satellites in particular moving into the single and double digit thousands, again, what our focus at the Department of Commerce is on space situational awareness and putting in place the next-generation way to track space objects. Again, one of the issues that we have, is it’s not just the United States, the Chinese have announced a mega consolation they want to launch. I suspect we’ll see similar activities in Europe. So we could see the number of satellites being launched in the tens of thousands. So the technical challenge is, the systems we have today are not efficient to do the level of exquisite SSA that we need. We need to be consistently excellent at something today that we are only good at.

Chair Cantwell: And you’re are not just talking about the debris side of the equation, you’re talking about the communication interference I would guess?

Mr. Dalbello: I’m talking about the actual, physical objects in space, when you get tens of thousands of objects in low-earth orbit together with human spaceflight. It is a potentially volatile situation.

Chair Cantwell: So you’d say the number one issue is LEOS?

Mr. Dalbello: From your perspective, that is one issue.

Chair Cantwell: Ok.

Mr. Coleman: Senator Cantwell, thanks for the question. I think as we see more commercial space launch activities take place, particularly in the National Airspace System, we are significantly challenged to accommodate the number of launches alongside the commercial aviation activities that we are seeing.

We have been addressing that through procedural changes, policy changes, and also we are trying to address it through technological changes as well. We are looking to implement and stand up new tools, like the Space Data Integrator, that will help us better understand where the vehicle's health is, where it is in the system, etc.

But we need to advance those efforts to better manage the proliferation of space activities that we are now seeing in the National Airspace System for sure.

Chair Cantwell: Mr. Hill, did you want to jump in there?

Mr. Hill: Certainly if I could pick up on what Mr. Dalbello was discussing, as the volume of space vehicles grows exponentially in space, the challenge is incorporating into the space surveillance networks, government, commercial, and others, and the data fusion you need to keep track of where all of this is. This is one of the reasons why we are saying, this is not a traditional Defense Department mission. It is a more classic, civil agency type of mission. Our focus is on particular satellites that might be of a threatening nature. The challenge we really have here with commercial is simply orbital dynamics, and certainly technology will allow for more autonomous control and more carrying capacity in low-earth orbit, but staying pace with that will be one of the challenges from a safety perspective.

Chair Cantwell: So you would say autonomous capacity maybe number one or no?

Mr. Hill: We probably don't know what the ultimate capacity as the technology to actually manage it as it grows, but keeping pace with that and understanding…

Chair Cantwell: I’m pretty sure our delivery of all that equipment and freight to the Moon is going to be autonomous, isn’t it? Isn’t it, Ms. Melroy?

Ms. Melroy: That’s correct, Chair. There will be humans on the loop, but many of the activities have a time delay as well.

Did you have something you wanted to put in?

Ms. Melroy: Yes, I did. It's very difficult to narrow it down. I agree with my colleague about space domain awareness, not just for collision avoidance, but also for accountability for things like rendezvous and proximity operations in safety and the accountability for those actions. We believe that understanding the explosive potential of new propellants is important, such as, the current methane systems. We are working closely with industry and the FAA to define that for the safety of our operations, as well as commercial. I will add technology that enables spectrum sharing. And I am sure the Department of Defense could talk more about that because they have a lot of programs in that area. In addition to that, we believe that it’s vital to do continued research on nuclear power and propulsion to enable deep space capabilities, but we want to do it safely.

Chair Cantwell: Thank you so much. What I’d like to do is to just have you expand for the record what you think the top three issues are. You kind of achieved that, Ms. Melroy, but for the record if you would do that, if you want to add five or six other things, great. I think part of our challenge going forward on how to look at this is really understanding what are the technological challenges and workforce challenges in the context of even what is proper oversight. But until you really understand what the technology challenges are, you really can’t decide whether you have the kind of technology support and oversight that you need. And as people discussed, is Commerce a place to be? Is FAA a place to be? And how do we coordinate between various agencies? Obviously, Mr. Hill, the spectrum issue in and of itself is pretty big. And Ms. Melroy issued, talked about it, so it's really a question of how do all of these things come together. And you all basically, Ms. Melroy may not have said the word pace, but everybody is talking about the rapid deployment here of next-generation technology and how does the government even stay pace with that? What does it take for us to have the right people, the right dialogues, the right information. So anyway, I look forward to your written answers to those questions. Thank you so much for the hearing.