Seeking Space Entrepreneurs: NOAA Launches Commercial Space Program


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) has launched a new policy to leverage the private sector to diversify NOAA’s portfolio of space-based data collection resources.  Our firm assists clients navigating NOAA’s regulatory programs, and this new program caught our eye due to its innovative approach.  The NOAA Commercial Space Policy lays out the agency’s vision for technological growth by involving the private sector in satellite data collection, and by promoting the U.S. space commerce industry:

Rapid change in the commercial space services arena over the past several years is now yielding new technical and business approaches not only to building, launching, and operating satellites but also to selling private satellite capabilities as services.  NOAA is interested in exploring these new business models to understand how they might complement the current public and international data supply arrangements.

As part of its new policy, NOAA released a Draft National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services (“NESDIS”) Commercial Space Activities Assessment Process (“NESDIS Program”) on April 8, 2016.  The goal of the proposed NESDIS Program is to assess and encourage commercial opportunities to support NOAA’s space-based observational information requirements.  To implement the Program, NOAA invites the private sector to participate in the government’s satellite observation program to collect data about the earth’s atmosphere.  Recruiting the private sector could lead to more advanced, cost-effective data collection processes, expanding NOAA’s ability to analyze weather, climate, ocean, and coastal patterns.

The NESDIS Program lays out the process for the next steps for commercial data acquisition.  NOAA will issue one or more Requests for Information to determine the commercial capabilities of the private sector.  Next, NOAA will release one or more Requests for Proposals to acquire and analyze commercial data from space satellites.  Since this is a new program, the comprehensive process is still being shaped, to be determined by the commercial sector’s interest and abilities.

Private Sector Leads Charge in Lowering Cost of Space Flight

As NOAA pursues partnerships with commercial space companies, private companies are investing heavily in advanced spacecraft vessels.  This demonstrates commercial interest in space-based technology and innovation.  As most space fans will have noted, Elon Musk’s private space exploration company, SpaceX, recently successfully landed a rocket on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.  According to Musk, “It’s another step toward the stars.  In order for us to really open up access to space we have to have full and rapid reusability.”  Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company, Blue Origin, has also landed the first stage of its rocket three times.  According to Bezos, if the commercial sector can build innovative rockets that can be reused, cost would be dramatically reduced: this is the “holy grail.”  Cost reduction is a key step in allowing the private sector to enter the government-dominated space market, and could make space travel more routine.

Related New US. Space Initiatives

NOAA is not the only governmental actor in the commercial space arena.  On April 12, 2016, Rep. Jim Bridenstine released a final draft of the American Space Renaissance Act.  The purpose of the Act is “to permanently secure the United States of America as the preeminent spacefaring nation.”  Like NOAA’s policy, the American Space Renaissance Act also encourages commercial space innovation.  Following step, the Pentagon announced yesterday, April 14, that it would begin revising its space policy.  The goals of the Pentagon’s policy changes include “mission assurance” or “resilience,” in which the Defense Department will ensure its satellites can always operate, regardless of unrest on Earth.

From an environmental standpoint, these new commercial space policies could promote a better understanding of weather patterns and atmospheric conditions.  Better data can also help inform  solutions to tackle environmental issues, including climate change.  Further, NOAA’s data services provide national security intelligence, which is “critical to the protection of lives, property, and the United States economy.”

We will continue to monitor and report on the implementation of NOAA’s space policy.  In the meantime, NOAA is accepting public comments on the Draft NESDIS Program until May 9, 2016.

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Mac Borkgren
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