The National Defense Authorization Act of 2023 — the annual bill that authorizes Defense Department spending levels and provides overall military policy — could serve as a vehicle for several space policy initiatives currently before Congress.

Ann amendment in the House of Representatives version of the bill and the proposed amendment to the Senate version seeks to address orbital debris, an area of ​​growing interest in the government, as there are currently more than 8,000 metric tons of debris in orbit and more than 900,000 pieces of orbital debris.

While NASA and the Federal Communications Commission have recently tried to deal with the growing problem of such debris, Congress is now looking to add measures to combat space junk.

The Senate amendment was introduced by Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., “to preserve the sustainability of operations in space.” As such, the amendment contains provisions to:

  • Create an orbital debris removal list that prioritizes the debris that poses the most immediate risk.
  • Establish an active orbital debris recovery demonstration program within NASA, working with industry to develop technology to fix the problem by either repurposing the debris or removing it. The program will focus on the research, development and demonstration of technologies that can safely carry out successful active debris removal missions. The program will have competitive awards for the recovery of identified orbital debris. It allocates $150 million for fiscal years 2023 through 2027 to carry out this effort.
  • Have NASA partner with other nations to deal with their respective orbital debris.
  • Use active debris removal services together with industry partners after proving viability.
  • Establish consistent standards for orbital debris. Specifically, the amendment would update the National Space Council’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices and encourage the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to use those updated standards and other nations to use those standards.

This amendment was also introduced as a bipartisan stand-alone bill in September.

“Our society relies on satellites in orbit, but space debris is a constant, growing threat,” said Senator Hickenlooper, chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Space and Science. “Space debris threatens everything from global communications to advanced weather forecasting to human space exploration.”

The house amendment— introduced by Sheila Jackson Lee, D-NY — requires the defense secretary to send a report on space debris to the appropriate congressional committees on “the risks posed by man-made space debris in low Earth orbit.”

Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced amendment which would authorize the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretaries of State, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce, and the Administrator of NASA—and the heads of such other agencies as the Director deems necessary—to collectively create and submit to Congress a report on international norms, rules, and principles, applicable to space, which includes threat identification and principles for dual-use technologies.

Another amendment introduced by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-Nev., provides guidance for the transition of the Space Development Agency — a Defense Department agency that works on space acquisition and uses the National Defense Space Architecture — to become part of the Space Force in October 2022 ., including that it should retain its original organizational structure during this time.

The House-passed version of the bill also included amendment which seeks an update and review of the establishment of space as critical infrastructure. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., introduced the amendment that would require the Comptroller General of the Government Accountability Office to examine: actions taken by the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether it should designate space as critical infrastructure and the status of those efforts, if any, and the extent to which the current 16 critical infrastructure sectors—created in 2013. Presidential Policy Directive— apply to space and its systems and technologies or where gaps exist. The GAO is expected to send a report to the appropriate congressional committees. In 2021, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency created task force to examine the creation of space as critical infrastructure.

The House version of the NDAA for fiscal year 2023 passed in July. The Senate is expected to take up its version of the legislation — which has more than 900 filed amendments — when it reconvenes after the midterm elections. The two bodies will then have to resolve differences and vote on final approval before it is sent to the president’s desk.