On June 18, 2018, President Donald Trump signed a third space directive, this time focusing on space traffic management. Like the first two directives, this also came at the recommendation of the National Space Council.

Q1: What does Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3) do?

A1: This new directive shifts responsibility for providing space situational awareness (SSA) data to satellite operators from the Department of Defense (DoD) to the Department of Commerce (DoC). In a speech at the 2018 Space Symposium, Vice President Mike Pence briefly introduced the goals of this directive. The vice president stated that “This new policy directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense.” SSA data is used to inform satellite operators if there is a potential for a collision with another passing satellite or piece of debris. This allows operators the opportunity to maneuver their satellite (if it is maneuverable) out of harm’s way. The U.S. Air Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, currently provides SSA services and issues collision warnings to satellite operators around the world. Under this directive, these responsibilities would be transferred to DoC.

This directive also instructs DoC to create an open-source data repository of publicly releasable SSA data and to develop stronger relationships with private organizations to more easily share SSA data. However, the Defense Department will continue to maintain the full authoritative catalogue of space objects. Commerce is also instructed to develop standards and best practices for pre-launch risk and on-orbit collision assessments.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is also given new responsibilities under the directive to lead efforts in updating the U.S. Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices and establish new guidelines for both satellite design and operation. Along the same vein, the Department of Transportation (DoT) will work with the Commerce Department, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to incorporate the updated debris mitigation standards into their respective licensing processes. This links directly with Space Policy Directive 2, which addressed licensing and regulation practices for commercial space activities by DoC, DoT, and FCC.

DoT and DoC will also work toward developing space traffic management (STM) standards and best practices. This includes “technical guidelines, minimum safety standards, behavioral norms, and orbital conjunction prevention protocols related to pre-launch risk assessment and on-orbit collision avoidance support services.” Finally, the State Department is instructed to lead discussions with international partners to develop nonbinding guidelines on how to increase international transparency for space traffic management.

Q2: What was not in Space Policy Directive 3?

A2: One of the most widely reported developments that emerged from the meeting where President Trump announced the new space policy directive was not something in the directive itself but rather the president’s call to create a new military service known as the Space Force. In his opening remarks prior to signing the new directive, President Trump directly asked General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”

This is not the first time President Trump has commented on the idea of creating a Space Force. In March 2018, he stated his support for a Space Force during remarks at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. Later, on May 1, 2018, he again brought up the creation of a Space Force, while presenting the U.S. Military Academy football team with a trophy for its defeats of the Navy and Air Force during their football season.

In the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the U.S. Congress directed DoD to evaluate, through an independent assessment, how a separate military department devoted to national security space might be structured. This study is currently being conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses and is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Visit “Is Congress Creating a Military Space Corps?” for more information on this study and the 2018 NDAA language.

Q3: What is notable about the changes SPD-3 presents?

A3: While moving the Space Situational Awareness and Space Traffic Management responsibilities from the military to a civil agency had been discussed for years, it is notable that the Trump administration elected to give these responsibilities to DoC. Prior to this directive, some had expected that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would be given the responsibilities of SSA and STM. The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which passed the House earlier this year and is awaiting consideration in the Senate, would also give the Commerce Department greater responsibility for regulating new “nontraditional” commercial space activities, a role that the FAA has argued for in the past.

Q4: Why is the administration making these changes?

A4: Space Situational Awareness and Space Traffic Management are becoming increasingly critical as more nations and more companies become active in space. In the next eight years alone, an estimated 3,000 satellites are expected to be launched. For perspective, at the end of 2017, there were around 1,700 active satellites in space. With this unprecedented increase in space activity—two-thirds of the increase from commercial satellites—the workload involved in SSA and issuing collision warnings is increasing rapidly. Moving these responsibilities from DoD to a civil agency, like the Department of Commerce, will allow DoD to focus on national security threats in space and protecting U.S. space assets.

Space debris mitigation is an issue that has been in and out of the public eye for decades. The United States and Soviet Union created hundreds of pieces of space debris, many which remain in orbit today, during years of antisatellite (ASAT) testing. Then in 2007, China created thousands of pieces of space debris with its first destructive ASAT test. Space debris has the potential to harm hundreds of satellites in orbit, including the International Space Station, and is commonly recognized as a serious international issue because currently there is no way to clean up widespread debris in space. Although there is great consensus on the danger of space debris, international action has been limited. With this directive, the president and National Space Council are making progress toward establishing standards and norms of behavior as more operators enter the space domain to help mitigate the creation of harmful space debris.

Todd Harrison is director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kaitlyn Johnson is a research associate with the CSIS Aerospace Security Project.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Todd Harrison

Todd Harrison

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project and Defense Budget Analysis
Kaitlyn Johnson

Kaitlyn Johnson

Former Deputy Director and Fellow, Aerospace Security Project