The US Wants Space Business to Stay Laissez-Faire
At this point in history, humanity is probably about halfway between the past moment when visiting the Moon became an achievable dream, and the future moment when that same trip will become a total hassle. As such, even a bit of bureaucratic paper is enough to make news. Today, space company Moon Express announced it has received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch the first commercial cargo bound for the moon.
But what’s really remarkable is that this Moon clearance was, bureaucratically, not much different from the clearance required to send any other commercial payload into space. This could set the precedent for how the US will regulate business on celestial objects beyond Earth’s orbit.
Moon Express positions itself as a new type of space company. Rather than launching rockets or flying satellites, it wants to provide space services. Naveen Jain, the company’s chairman and co-founder, compares the space economy to the Internet. Rockets are like the fiber in the ground; landers are like the ISP connecting the fiber to the consumer. Services are everything else. On the Internet, that’s apps, social media, WIRED.com. In space, that’s mining, fuel depots, moon colonies, and so on. Relative to those ambitions, the company’s first launch—happening sometime late 2017—is pretty humble: an Internet-controlled telescope and some robots.
But until now, even stuff as simple as that didn’t have a regulatory pathway within the US’s space rules. See, back in 1967 the US and a bunch of other nations signed the Outer Space Treaty, which set some broad definitions of how space can be used. “There’s an obligation to act safely, that space should only be used for peaceful purposes, nobody can launch any weapons of mass destruction, and freedom of access for all,” says Henry Hertzfeld, research professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. Hidden in the language of that treaty was an acknowledgement that eventually private companies would want to access space. Once they did, it would be up to their parent nation to make sure they were operating within the Outer Space Treaty’s guidelines.
But so far, the US’s permitting process only covered commercial activities within Earth’s orbit. Technically, this doesn’t include the Moon, which has its own gravitational field. “We don’t have a well-defined permitting or licensing system for landing on the Moon, at present,” says Henry Hertzfeld, research professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. Which is why Moon Express had to put pressure on the government to figure out some kind of regulatory framework that would let them go to space.
The government decided to let Moon Express abide by the same rules as other commercial space operations. According to US space laws, companies launching payloads into Earth’s orbit must first undergo a review from the FAA. “We’re evaluating it to make sure it does not jeopardize public health and safety, and also doesn’t violate US national security, foreign policy interests, or international treaties,” says an agency spokesperson.
This means no extra red tape for going to the Moon. But it also has international implications. Last November, Congress passed a new version of the Space Act, which allowed private companies to keep any resources they had obtained in space. “This national interpretation, where companies essentially can have ownership rights of things obtained in space, is different from how other nations have thought about commercial space activity,” says Hertzfeld. “It remains to be seen if this is a precedent that will be accepted by other countries or not.”
The US rulemaking process for commercial spaceflight tends to be pretty ad hoc. America wants companies to do business in space. But that could change, if the UN committee on the peaceful uses of space decides the US’s laissez-faire space policy is not in the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty.
Or, the US might come up with more rules to quell disputes between quarreling companies. “If the US has a dispute between companies in space involving the ownership of resources, the courts can hear the arguments and make a decision,” says Hertzfeld. And if one of those companies is foreign, things will get even more complicated; essentially an arbitration between nations. To the future space traveler, any past arbitrations will be a pain in the hatch.