Proposed Legislation Would Make Space Settlement a National Goal

by

WASHINGTON — Legislation that one congressman plans to introduce in the near future would make space settlement a national goal and require NASA to take action to support it.

The Space Exploration, Development, and Settlement Act of 2015, drafted by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), would mark the second time in the last three decades that Congress has directed NASA to support efforts for permanent human settlements beyond Earth orbit.

A version of the bill circulated in the space advocacy community would amend the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the “organic” legislation that created NASA in 1958, to include space settlement among national space policy goals and objectives.

The legislation would amend the Space Act by adding an additional goal to an existing list of objectives for national space activities: “The expansion of permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit in a way that enables human settlement and a thriving space economy.”

Under the bill, NASA would be required to produce a report every two years “which describes the progress made toward expanding permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit” in support of space settlement. Those reports would also require NASA to develop metrics to quantify that progress.

While yet to be formally introduced, space advocates have been working to line up support for the bill. In mid-April, the Alliance for Space Development (ASD), a coalition of 11 space organizations, asked its members to contact their congressional representatives and request they co-sponsor the legislation.

ASD mentioned the proposed legislation when the new organization rolled out its legislative agenda in February. Charles Miller, executive coordinator of ASD, said at the time that the provision was intended to parallel changes to the Space Act in the 1980s to promote space commerce.

“A lot of people think that space settlement and development is part of our purpose, but it’s not an official one in the NASA organic law,” he said at a Feb. 25 press conference here.

The official portrait Rep. George Brown, Jr. (D-Calif.), hangs in the House Science Committee's hearing room. Credit: House Science Committee Democrats
The official portrait of U.S. Rep. George Brown, Jr. (D-Calif.), hangs in the House Science Committee’s hearing room. Credit: House Science Committee Democrats

The legislation, though, would not be the first attempt to make space settlement part of NASA’s mission. The NASA Authorization Act of 1989 also included a provision requiring NASA to support space settlement activities. That section is commonly referred to as the Space Settlement Act of 1988, as it was originally introduced as a standalone bill by the late Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.)

While the 1988 legislation did not amend the Space Act, like the proposed bill does, it did require NASA to submit reports every two years on work it has carried out related to the scientific, technological, and economic issues related to space settlement.

However, NASA never produced any reports required by the law, and that provision was never enforced by Congress. Steve Wolfe, who as a member of Brown’s staff helped craft that original legislation, is more optimistic now about the prospects of Rohrabacher’s bill.

“I think it does have a better chance of making an impact a quarter-century later,” he said April 29. He said the closed-door Pioneering Space Summit meeting held here in February as helping lay the groundwork for the new bill, as well as strong support among space advocates. “It is a strong indication that the space community is ready to embrace a settlement agenda.”

Wolfe added it was important for the new bill to retain the changes to the Space Act, which was in the original version of the 1988 bill but stripped out when incorporated into the authorization act.

“It is important this time around that we change the organic code governing NASA,” he said. The new bill “requires NASA to support space settlement development; the first bill didn’t.”