Congress Defends Commercial Space Bill’s Resource Rights Provisions

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U.S. lawmakers insist the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act's space resources provisions are consistent with the Outer Space Treaty, and not a U.S. attempt to claim sovereignty over territory on other worlds.

WASHINGTON — With the biggest commercial space bill in more than a decade now signed into law, members of Congress and their staffs are now turning their attention to reports required by the new law as well as other legislation.

In a Dec. 9 speech at the 10th Annual Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues of Space Law here, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) praised the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which President Obama signed into law Nov. 25.

“The law ensures American leadership in space and fosters the development of advanced space technologies,” Babin, chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said.

Babin used the speech to defend one of the law’s more controversial provisions, granting U.S. citizens the rights to resources they obtain from asteroids or other bodies beyond Earth. “Unfortunately, there have been a number of misconceptions about the intent and the legality” of that section of the law, he said.

The law, he argued, was consistent with the Outer Space Treaty, and was not an attempt by the U.S. to claim sovereignty over territory on other worlds. It also requires that resources be “obtained” in order for citizens to be granted rights to them, a step that requires more than just remote observations. “Only through physical recovery does this right manifest,” he said.

Babin also opposed any effort to establish an international regime to govern access to space resources. “Doing so is unnecessary and would be counterproductive,” he said. While the administration is encouraged to promote the creation of similar laws in other nations, he warned of the “burdensome yoke of an international body around the neck of U.S. innovation.”

Babin’s view of the law, in particular its space resource section, was shared by Congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle. “I don’t think it’s anything new and I don’t think anyone should be caught off guard by U.S. policy,” said Tom Hammond, staff director of the House space subcommittee, in a later panel at the symposium, arguing that the bill simply reiterated existing policy about ownership of resources.

Nicholas Cummings, a staff member on the Senate Commerce Committee working for ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), agreed with Hammond. “I don’t think we established a new right,” he said.

Hammond noted that the way the final bill was passed — by unanimous consent in the Senate and on a voice vote in the House — meant that no member of Congress formally opposed it. “That puts a lot of weight behind the bill going forward,” he said.

While the bill is now law, it requires the Obama Administration to fill in some details about both its implementation and future plans in the form of a series of reports. Among them is a report requiring the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to identify “appropriate authorization and supervision authorities” for commercial activities in space not governed by existing licenses.

That could lead to the creation of a licensing regime known as “mission authorization” or “on-orbit authority.” Some in industry have argued for such authority so that the U.S. can fulfill its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty to provide oversight of commercial activities in space. The Federal Aviation Administration has, in recent years, advocated for taking on an on-orbit authority role in addition to its launch and reentry licensing work.

However, Cummings cautioned that the report, and later Congressional action, might not give that authority to the FAA. “It’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that we’re going to massively expand the authorities and responsibilities of FAA,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re maximizing the use of current authorities first.”

With the commercial space bill now enacted, Babin used his speech to push once again for passage of a NASA authorization bill. NASA has operated without an authorization bill since the last one, passed in 2010, expired at the end of fiscal year 2013, although that bill’s policy provisions remain in force.

Babin urged the Senate to take up an authorization bill for 2015 that the House passed on a voice vote in February. “This should be an easy bill for the United States Senate to take up and pass quickly,” he said, asking for the Senate to pass that bill be early next year to provide some policy certainty in advance of the transition of administrations after the 2016 elections.

However, Cummings said that there’s no near-term action expected in the Senate on a NASA authorization. “We don’t have a bill out there right now,” he said. “But we’re certainly always taking inputs and always interested in what can be done there.”