White House, Commercial Space Companies Praise New Space Law

White House, Commercial Space Companies Praise New Space Law

A White House official and representatives of three entrepreneurial space companies praised last week’s enactment of a new law that provides property rights to U.S. companies that mine resources from asteroids during an online discussion today (December 1).

Tom Kalil, Deputy Director, Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) said that President Obama was “delighted” to sign the bill into law because promoting the commercial space industry is a high priority for the Obama Administration.   He pointed out that the President’s vision is that the United States will go to space not just to visit, but to stay.  Kalil enthused that using energy and matter that is already in space, rather than launching it from Earth, will lead eventually to a “solar system civilization” and the law creates an environment conducive to private sector efforts to further that goal.

The final version of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, H.R. 2262, passed the House and Senate in November and the President signed it on November 25.  It covers a broad range of commercial space issues, but today’s Google+ Hangout, sponsored by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), focused on the asteroid mining provision.

Peter Marquez from Planetary Resources Inc., Bob Richards from Moon Express, and Mike Gold from Bigelow Aerospace joined Kalil on the panel, which was moderated by CSF President Eric Stallmer.  Planetary Resources plans to mine asteroids, while Moon Express is focused on lunar resources.  Bigelow Aerospace is building inflatable modules that can be used in space or on the surface of the Moon or other planetary bodies.

The issue of who can own space resources is controversial because of provisions in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that prohibit nations from asserting sovereignty in space and require governments to authorize and continually supervise activities of non-government entities, like companies.

Richards said today that the “brilliant” aspect of the law is that there is “’no assertion of territory.”  The law gives rights to resources mined from asteroids, but not to the asteroid itself.  He likened it to operators of fishing vessels in international waters who own the fish they catch, but not the oceans.  He added the law codifies what governments have already done by returning samples of the Moon to Earth and that “these are also rights of the private sector.”

The United States and Soviet Union both brought back lunar samples which remain in their possession (the U.S. samples were obtained by six Apollo astronaut crews; the Soviet Union returned samples using robotic spacecraft).  The United States also returned a sample from a comet and of solar wind.   Japan has returned material from an asteroid and the United States will launch its own robotic asteroid sample return mission next year.

The overall message from the companies was that the law provides security and predictability for investors and allows the companies to focus on developing the technology to achieve these goals, rather than spending their time in court arguing over resource ownership issues.  Gold joked that more time can be spent on launches and less on lawyers “which is unfortunate for me as an attorney.”

Gold cautioned, though, that the law is just the beginning of the process and it is not yet time for “popping the champagne.”  He said the law is “rife with the opportunity for misunderstanding and misconception” and expects that at the first meeting of the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS) next year, there will be “outcries from many nations about the U.S. flaunting the Outer Space Treaty.”

Getting other nations to understand and agree with the law is the responsibility of the State Department, Marquez said.  That may be a challenging assignment.   Even NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden expressed skepticism at an unrelated event today.  In response to a question at the NASA Advisory Council meeting at Johnson Space Center, Bolden said he was “not sure the U.S. Congress can pass a law that authorizes American citizens” to own space resources, noting that NASA has been involved in these issues for many years.  Nevertheless, he said he was encouraged by all the entrepreneurs who want to do it.

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