Congress Says Yes to Space Mining, No to Rocket Regulations
Space: the final franchise. These are the entrepreneurs funding near space voyages and starship enterprises. Their continuing mission statement: to explore lucrative new orbits, to seek out new ores and new deregulations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Capitalistic Captain Kirks rejoice! Yesterday the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act soared through both congressional houses with vacuum-like ease. First and foremost, the bill protects private spaceflight from regulatory oversight, giving the industry up to 10 years to get its innovations in place before government overseers step in and start counting rivets. But more interesting (if less immediately applicable), the bill lets entreprenauts keep whatever nonliving souvenirs they find out in the void, opening the door to everything from asteroid-based gold mines to comet-collected rocket fuel. The next step is President Obama’s desk, but he’s likely to sign.
Going to space is risky business. Besides the upfront danger to life and rocket, astronomical investments are at stake—and certain government agencies want to reduce risk by imposing regulations on commercial spaceflight. At the forefront is the Federal Aviation Administration, which would like to manage spaceship specs much like it does commercial planes. (Remember that the next time your 737 passes through a patch of turbulence in one piece.)
But the industry says regulations like that would hinder its progress to the stars. “Investing in space is a long term, high up front, and highly risky investment,” says Henry Hertzfeld, space policy researcher at George Washington University. Despite hyped stories about Mars colonies and Lance Bass in a cosmonaut suit, the commercial space industry is young and technologically immature. To build a rocket that can land on an ocean barge, or an egalitarian edge-of-space tourism company, the field needs more time, more innovation.
More money, too. But even the most space-crazed billionaire wouldn’t want to invest cash in a new, uncertain industry that also happens to be overly regulated.
And Congress agrees—so, with the space bill, it gave the industry another eight years without regulatory oversight. Or at least, without much of it. The FAA still issues licenses for all US spacecraft launches and reentries. “It’s a real vote of confidence from Congress that commercial space matters, and we can shape and grow the industry without the burdens of the federal government,” says Eric Stallmer, president of Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group.
But regulatory exemptions are not why you clicked this article. You came for the newly-authorized space mining—although what the legislation OK’ed is actually broader than that. “This bill gives a company working under a US license the ability to own resources that they might obtain from celestial bodies,” explains Hertzfeld.
That’s great news for companies like Planetary Resources (tagline: “The Asteroid Mining Company”). But it might not sit so well with other world governments. Several decades of space treaties have established that governments cannot lay claim to celestial bodies, but private individuals could keep the stuff they find. But the selling of said claims by private companies is hazy territory. Because these companies are regulated under US law, the law could be interpreted as saying that these celestial bodies are US property.
Of course, the bill also has a paragraph stating that these claims are not declarations of sovereignty. “They are just permitting the resources to be recovered and owned,” says Hertzfeld. “But not every country is going to see things the same way.” The law also leaves out how to allocate shared resources. Like, what if a US company and a Chinese company want to mine the same asteroid? Who gets to mine where? And what if Algeria, Bolivia , or Croatia also want slices? (Hey, in my future, everybody gets a space program.) The world could look to similar treaties, like those that allocate positions in geosynchronous orbit, but even those are essentially given out on a first come, first serve basis. Sure, outer space is infinite, but shouldn’t everyone have an equitable shot at it?
Those sections of the bill are already spurring international debate, but probably won’t come under real scrutiny until the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space‘s annual meeting next summer in Vienna. Let’s hope they go better than that time Riker faced off against the Ferengi for control of a wormhole.