WASHINGTON — The commercialization of outer space is starting to take off.
President Trump signed a memorandum Thursday that aims to streamline federal regulations governing the growing and economically important activity private firms are conducting in Earth's lower orbit.
The goal is to treat space like other platforms — such as the internet, highways and American air space —where strict government control has slowly given way to looser oversight that encourages private innovation while still maintaining rigorous safety standards.
"This directive will encourage American leadership in space commerce by creating more certainty for investors and private industry, while focusing on protecting our national security and public-safety," Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement released by the White House. "As President Trump says, “We’re a nation of pioneers, and the next great American frontier is space.”
The directive, which grew out of the council's February meeting at Kennedy Space Center in Florida:
- Requires the Department of Transportation to "reform the regulatory system" for launch and reentry.
- Mandates the Department of Commerce update rules governing satellite imagery, known as "remote sensing,"
- Creates a "one-stop shop" at the Commerce for commercial space companies.
- Calls for a Space Council review of licensing rules pertaining to commercial space flight activity to determine whether further streamlining should occur.
Administration officials who briefed reporters said the proposed changes are part of the administration's broader deregulation efforts across the federal government. Streamlining commercial space rules won't kick in until at least next year following an internal review and input from various stakeholders, they said.
The effort comes as the industry has been rocketing up over the past decade. The global space economy doubled during that period to $330 billion in 2015 with commercial space activities accounting for three quarters of that amount, according to the Space Foundation.
Private companies working on NASA contracts provide cargo to the International Space Station and are soon expected to carry astronauts as well.
The head of a trade group representing space firms such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin welcomed Trump's directive Thursday, saying it could shorten launch approvals from six months to as little as two weeks.
Space companies "would rather hire engineers than lawyers," said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, referring to the time it takes to comply with the current slate of "arcane, outdated" regulations.
The streamline directive is "an important step" in the evolution of commercial space, said Dale Ketcham, vice president Government & External Relations for Space Florida, a state-created agency to promote Florida's burgeoning aerospace industry and launch business.
Removing bureaucratic barriers should boost the industry in much the same way deregulation has allowed others to blossom, he said.
"Right now, we don't let self driving cars go everywhere although we do allow it in a lot of places," Ketcham said. "Eventually, that technology will mature (to a point) that no one will notice. And the same is true in space flight."