White House policy seeks fewer lawyers, more engineers at space companies

As the White House seeks to smooth the way for commercial spaceflight, President Trump will sign a new space policy directive on Thursday afternoon. The new policy directs US departments and agencies to implement several reforms to ease the regulatory system for launch licensing, remote sensing, and more.

“This builds on Space Policy Directive 1, to reorient the human spaceflight program back toward the Moon using commercial partners,” Scott Pace said Thursday.

The new directive formalizes recommendations made in February at the second meeting of the National Space Council to reform the regulatory environment. In short, the White House wants to cut paperwork for commercial companies launching rockets and flying satellites in Earth orbit. As one official told Ars, the White House would like these companies to be able to hire more engineers and fewer lawyers.

The reforms

The proposed reforms, which should emerge as “final” rules early next year, concern several areas according to the White House.

For rocket companies, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao will devise a new regulatory system for managing launch and re-entry activity, including the possibility of requiring just a single license for all types of commercial space flight launch and re-entry operations, and replacing prescriptive requirements in the process with performance-based criteria. “What we basically want to see is faster turnaround for launch licences,” a White House official said on background.

The directive also seeks to ease regulations on commercial remote sensing. The apparent backwardness of this policy was readily apparent earlier this year, when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration restrictions prevented SpaceX from showing live video coverage of its Falcon 9 rocket second stage just prior to engine shutdown.

Other areas covered by the new policy include the creation of a “one-stop shop” within the Department of Commerce for administering and regulating commercial space flight activities, requiring a report on how best to improve global competitiveness of United States space radio frequency spectrum policies, and a review of export licensing regulations affecting commercial space flight activity.

“Very good”

Advocates of commercial spaceflight, including rocket companies such as SpaceX and much smaller start-ups, were enthusiastic about the proposed reforms to policies that in some cases date back to the 1980s, when the private aerospace industry was in its infancy compared to today. Whereas large, established aerospace companies have armies of lawyers to navigate these regulatory thickets, it can often be a Byzantine, costly realm to navigate for smaller companies.

“This really is very good,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in an interview. “The White House and the National Space Council have really been listening to the concerns of the commercial space industry, and now they’re moving quickly to address the shortcomings. The regulatory regime was one of our top priorities, and to say it was outdated is an understatement.”

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