Can California Really Start Its Own Space Agency?
Gov. Jerry Brown said the state would “launch its own damn satellites” if Trump makes cuts to NASA’s environmental science programs.
Image: Joe McHugh, California Highway Patrol
In a scathing speech Wednesday in front of some of the most important climate scientists in the world, California Gov. Jerry Brown vowed to fight Donald Trump's anti-environmental policies every step of the way. One audacious promise particularly stood out: Brown said that if Trump turns off NASA's climate-monitoring satellites, the state "is going to launch its own damn satellites."
Trump's advisors have indeed said he will crack down on "politicized science," and Trump campaign advisor Bob Walker noted that this would include NASA's Earth Sciences Division, which operate several Earth-monitoring satellites. No one knows yet if Trump will actually have NASA turn off satellites that are much more expensive to make and launch than they are to operate, but for the sake of preparedness, I decided to look into whether or not California could actually keep Brown's promise. I spoke to several space lawyers in an attempt to suss out how, logistically and legally, a California Space Agency would work.
The legal issues will of course depend on the specifics of California's program—if the state pursued a public-private partnership, it could simply buy data from a commercial satellite company that secures launch permits from the federal government. But let's presume for a moment that California wants to start its own honest-to-goodness space agency, or, at the very least, wants to handle the launch and monitoring of its satellites. There are two main questions: Would such a plan be feasible? And can the state legally do so?
Is a California Space Agency feasible?
Though no state has a robust satellite operations program, several states do have space authorities that are mainly tasked with incentivizing and promoting commercial space activity within their respective states. Space Florida, the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority are all currently operational. The California Space Authority operated between 1996 and 2011, when it was shut down.
The idea of a state launching its own satellites today is much more plausible than it was back in 1987, when Joanne Gabrynowicz, the editor-in-chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law, was approached by the staff of longtime New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.
"California can launch its own remote sensing satellites just like the private sector can launch commercial satellites"
Bradley's plan was for the state of New Jersey to launch its own satellite to monitor the Jersey coast, which had to close its beaches when the "syringe tide" washed a significant amount of medical waste, syringes, and human body parts ashore. Bradley thought that a satellite would help catch illegal dumping off the coast.
"In 1987, when I spoke to Sen. Bradley's legislative aides, a state having its own satellite was unrealistic," Gabrynowicz told me. "In 2016, there is so much change in technology that it is more realistic to raise the question of what's possible, however it would still require considerable scientific, economic, and legal research."
In fact, Brown himself proposed an environmental satellite program for California in 1978, which he said Wednesday helped earned him the moniker "Governor Moonbeam."
Past fantasies aside, the price of cubesats and other small satellites with powerful sensors has come down significantly in the last decade, though land-sensing satellites have thus far been quite expensive. Landsat 8, launched in 2013 as a joint project between NASA and the US Geological Survey, has a program cost of $850 million. Experts believe now that the same satellite could be built and launched for $650 million.
Depending on the capabilities California would want, it could launch a satellite for much cheaper. Startup Skybox Imaging, which was rebranded as Terra Bella after Google purchased it, launched its first imaging cubesat for less than $50 million. For context, California's government spends in the neighborhood of $100 billion per year. It is currently $400 billion in debt, but has a balanced budget and has begun the slow process of paying off those debts.
There are many models for how a California Space Agency could potentially work, and if the state were to seriously pursue this goal, it could partner with or offer tax incentives to many aerospace companies that are headquartered or have large presences in the state. SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Lockheed Martin, ViaSat, Boeing, and Virgin Galactic all have operations in southern California, and the state has both the Mojave Air and Space Port and the California Spaceport—which is located on Vandenberg Air Force Base but is commercially operated—that it could use for launches.
Finally, it's worth noting that some states do have satellites in space, in a way. Several public universities, which fall under the purview of state governments, have launched research satellites over the years.
"As far as I'm aware, there's no state that has a significant satellite program. It sounds like Brown has larger ideas than what the universities have done," Matthew Schaefer, a space law professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, told me. "It's going to be a question of bang for the buck. What capabilities are you looking for and how much would that cost? It's also a question of looking at what's out there—they may be able to get the data they want from a commercial satellite that's already in orbit."
Motherboard reached representatives for Gov. Brown, who said they do not currently have anything to add to Brown's remarks.
Would a California Space Agency be legal?
Legally speaking, there are no obvious legal roadblocks that would instantly doom a California Space Agency to failure, according to four space law experts I spoke to.
That said, California absolutely could not start its own space agency without some federal cooperation. The rationale behind killing NASA's Earth-monitoring satellites would seem to be economic in nature, and the team he's surrounded himself with are all champions of states' rights. So if California wants to spend its own money on a space program, maybe his agencies will tell the state to go for it.
"I see no impediment," Rosanna Satler, a space lawyer with the Posternak Blankstein & Lund law firm in Boston, told me in an email. "California can launch its own remote sensing satellites just like the private sector can launch commercial satellites. I do not believe that any state as an entity or political subdivision has actually launched satellites on its own, but I see no reason why California cannot do so."
No lawyer I spoke with was aware of any specific federal law that would supercede a state resolution from California to create a space agency.
Internationally speaking, California itself is what's considered a "non-visible entity," meaning the state is considered to be part of the United States (which barring a Calexit, is exactly what it is).
"The US is responsible and liable for any relevant categories of US-based space activities, which would include hypothetical ones of any administrative unit within the US," Frans von der Dunk, a space law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told me in an email. "At least formally, space activities are only legitimate under international law if they are condoned by [the United States]."
The federal government gives permission to other non-visible entities all the time—SpaceX and Blue Origin fall into the same category. To launch a rocket, California would need permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, which handles all launch permits. It would also need to secure communications bandwidth from the Federal Communications Commission. Depending on the sensors used by the state's hypothetical satellites, it may also need permission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's licensing programs for remote sensing satellites.
The FAA has also given itself the authority to license private and state-operated spaceports that are not run by the federal government, suggesting that the agency believes the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 allows it to oversee space launch facilities in the United States.
"California could do it," Schaefer said. "They would be the sixth or seventh largest nation in the world, they have a large budget and are a huge global actor."