Space Traffic Control, The Issue Who’s Time has Come


This week is the week of the Silicon Valley Small Satellite Symposium at the Computer History museum in Mountain View California.  There have been other space and small satellite related conferences here but this one has a completely different feel to it.  The attendees are from the financial, commercial, entrepreneurial, and government sectors. This is probably the highest power conference of its type to be here in Silicon Valley, at least in the modern era.  This bodes well for the industry in that it is both ripe for disruption, and ready for the cash infusion that will bring forth the promise that those of us who have been working in the sector for a while have envisioned.

Also, there is a second conference going on in Washington this week called the Commercial Space Transportation Conference.  Hashtag #CST2017.  This is the twentieth anniversary conference and this is where most of the government policy wonk action is happening.  This is a sold out event and this is where regulatory, policy, and prognostications for the future from the government viewpoint are outlined.

In looking at the agenda for both meetings, they could be in different universes.  An example is a mind blowing statistic from the Silicon Valley event that is not even on the radar screen at CST.


This is the number of satellites, that if all of the proposed efforts fly, will be in the air by 2023.  This is double the number of satellites launched since the dawn of the space age in 1957.  That is mind boggling.  The people in Washington at CST 2017 seem to be unaware of this tsunami of space commerce headed their way.  The people in Silicon Valley for the most part are completely unaware of the fact that this number of satellites will completely overwhelm and bring the regulatory system to a grinding halt.  This is besides the technical issues that will make the mere implementation of this many satellites, mostly in low earth orbit (LEO) a disaster in the making.

Following here is a presentation that we were going to make at the DARPA On Orbit Servicing Consortium event a few weeks ago in Washington.  However, even DARPA still seems to be living in the quaint old days of 2015 before the tsunami.  DARPA is aware, as are many government types that this is coming and that it needs to be dealt with.  However, the timing is such that the time table that DARPA has for the on orbit servicing consortium is woefully inadequate. Some of the folks at the FAA are incredibly smart and are also aware of this but DARPA had started to take the lead in this area and thus it seems that the FAA is stepping back a bit.  However, this is probably not viable.

It is going to take the FAA, DARPA, NASA, and the FCC working together to bring into being an entirely new regulatory structure (probably DARPA needs to just take an advisory role as it has little experience in regulatory implementation) to accommodate the new era. If the time has come whereby Silicon Valley sees space as the next big thing, it will transform the world just as it has in many other sectors of the economy like the Internet (also originally spawned by DARPA but unleashed into the wild).  It is my strong opinion that the regulatory world is not going to be able to do this on its own and thus we need a true commercial space system that is driven by the needs of the industry, but given form and substance and certainty of regulation by the government.  Government works best as referee and the time is indeed at hand when commercial space may overshadow the government in space just as it did in the academic/scientific world with the unleashing of the Internet in the early 1990’s.

Throwing Ideas Out for Bringing Order to Chaos

If commercial interests are building to this tsunami as it looks to be the case.  Then we must also take responsibility to do this in a manner that is good for the industry as a whole.  The following charts here are not just my ideas.  Much of it comes from Col Eric Sundberg (ret), a former USAF astronaut who was going to fly Space Shuttle missions for the military in the 1980’s before the military abandoned the Shuttle as a launch and operations platform.  Col Sundberg has been a leading force in bring order to chaos in this realm and thus we provide this to the commercial community for consideration.

Following are all of our briefing charts.  Please comment as you will and please help to spread far and wide.





2 thoughts on “Space Traffic Control, The Issue Who’s Time has Come

  1. Thanks for organizing this in the format you have. “13,517” is something I can’t imagine and this number of orbiting items probably much higher due to booster parts that place these satellites into orbit. It has been written if there is too much space junk then almost anything in orbit or going through LEO will be struck and damaged by debris. This will become a “wall” that will confine us to the atmosphere (no useful satellites, no Moon, no anything else).

    Last year’s SVEC Engineers Week Banquet featured speaker Michael Trela of Google + Skybox Imaging (I wonder if he was presenting at this symposium) said he sees we are entering a new Golden Era of spaceflight with many companies forming. He also sees it much more sustainable than it has been in the past. Which is all good but comes with other burdens which is creating a STC system, obviously will be government. I wonder if this will face opposition i.e. “evel gubmint over regulating private businesses.”

    I’m thinking the airplane analogy when CAB/FAA was formed because there had to be control of the airspace. This ATC architecture has constantly been updated and still is. Imagine if it didn’t exist. So if spaceflight becomes routine, then how we deal with it will be different than how it has always been which is highly specialized one-off missions. And this takes a “re-programming” our brains how to deal with it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s