The Commercial Space Act of 1997: Commercial Remote Sensing

May 21, 1997 | Molly K. Macauley
Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives


As a long-time analyst of the commercial use of space technology, RFF Senior Fellow Molly Macauley offered her views to Congress in May 1997 on how government can foster burgeoning commercial ventures into satellite remote sensing. One of the most promising transfers of technology from the public to private sector in years. Macauley has a research grant from NASA to study the ongoing economic -- as well as privacy, security, and other -- implications of American companies selling images photographed by privately owned satellites in outer space.In her testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Science's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Macauley praised much of the proposed policy designed to make way for commercial remote sensing as "carefully crafted." But she cautioned against fettering the industry further, at least unless any prospective law or regulation is first subjected to a careful weighing of its pros and cons.Despite a good start, moreover, Macauley said that some refinement is still needed of the relationship between the government and the new private owners and operators of high-resolution spacecraft. She cited industry concern about what is considered a slow-paced licensing process and the absence of an effective way to appeal denials of requests for licenses or licensing amendments. In response to such criticism, she recommended a "fast track" approach like the one the Food and Drug Administration uses to handle some categories of new drug approval requests. She also suggested that the government consider developing a "one-stop-shop" point of contact not just for routine licensing but for responding to proposals from industry regarding new activities or innovations.She urged Congress to stop government subsidies of the cost of distributing remote sensing data, questioning the legitimacy of the burden placed on taxpayers and noting the ironic tendency of such subsidies to lead to data of poor quality. Intellectual property rights also require some attention, she said.With regard to research and development, the government might provide industry with facilities for testing hardware, evaluating data quality, and supporting basic research, in addition to providing data vouchers or augmenting research grants with funding for data purchases. Another relatively straightforward way that government might help out would be to auction off its used spacecraft once research missions have been completed.Government's role here is not without limits, however, Macauley added, and the industry will probably step into the breach to set up and fund some research on its own, she said.