Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, said at an April 26 hearing it's time to examine potential changes to the Outer Space Treaty. Credit: Senate Commerce Committee webcast

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate space subcommittee said at a hearing April 26 that it may be time for the United States to update a key space treaty to reflect growing commercial space activities.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) raised the prospect of updating the 50-year-old Outer Space Treaty, widely considered a cornerstone of international space law, at a hearing to discuss other regulatory reforms needed to promote continued growth of space companies in the country.

“As we look to the future of American free enterprise and settlement in space, we should also thoroughly review the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty, which was written and enacted in a very different time and era in 1967,” he said. “It’s important that Congress evaluate how that treaty, enacted 50 years ago, will impact new and innovative activity within space.”

Cruz didn’t elaborate in his remarks about what changes he wanted to see in the treaty. Some space commercialization advocates, though, have previously suggested amending the treaty to address issues such as the ability to make claims on celestial bodies and have rights to resources there.

Later in the hearing, Cruz asked the four witnesses, all heads of commercial space companies, how relevant they consider the treaty to be today.

“I think the treaty needs to be updated,” said Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace. Some elements of the treaty, such as prohibitions on placing weapons of mass destruction in space, should be retained, he argued, but other provisions related to commercial space activities should be reexamined.

“That treaty was cast in a timeframe where the United States and Russia didn’t know who was going to be reaching the moon first,” with concerns that whoever landed there first might attempt to claim it. At the time, he said, the treaty’s framers didn’t consider “that commercial folks would have the wherewithal or the audacity to be thinking about traveling to the moon and conducting business there.”

The treaty, he noted, allows countries to establish bases on the moon and other bodies, but places no limits on the number, size or location of those bases. He suggested the development of a defined area around bases that would provide a zone of non-interference, or safety buffer, from other facilities.

Those zones, he suggested, could also give those who operate those bases rights to the resources within those zones. “It’s very difficult to not want that if you’re a company that is promoting mining,” he said. “You’re not asking for ownership of the regolith but ownership of what you extract.”

Amending the treaty would require considerable effort at the international level, which Bigelow acknowledged would be a challenge. “The risk of that is trying to get consensus, where you would be trying to get a large population of countries to agree,” he said.

Regulatory changes
The three other witnesses did not address the question of revising the Outer Space Treaty, but did have recommendations for federal policy changes to support the commercial space industry.

George Whitesides, chief executive of Galactic Ventures, which operates suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic and small launch vehicle developer Virgin Orbit, called on increased funding for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which both licenses and promotes the commercial launch industry in the United States. Many in the industry have expressed concern that growth in the industry could overwhelm the small office, whose annual budget is less than $20 million.

“It may be rare for companies to be pushing for more funding for their regulators, but we really think this is a case where is could be a good investment for the country,” he said of increasing AST’s budget.

Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, also supported a budget increase for AST but added that the office should focus on its current responsibilities to license commercial launches and not seek additional roles.

“We believe that AST’s resources are insufficient to meet its existing obligations, and do not believe AST should take on new authorities now, such as on-orbit authority, space situational awareness or space traffic management,” he said. “We want to work with AST on the impending licensing traffic jam before they start taking on orbital traffic jams.”

Blue Origin is currently developing an orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn, with a reusable first stage that will initially launch from Cape Canaveral. Meyerson said an issue for him was “conflicting expectations on the regulatory process” between the FAA, which will issue launch licenses for those flights, and the U.S. Air Force, which oversees the Cape Canaveral launch sites and Eastern Range, operated by the 45th Space Wing.

Meyerson said that, unlike launches for expendable launch vehicles, the FAA and the Air Force have “entirely different, but equally rigorous” documentation requirements for reusable vehicles. “This is duplicative and onerous, and will increase costs, delays and uncertainty,” he said. While the leadership of the 45th Space Wing has been willing to adapt its processes to support commercial users like Blue Origin, “the leadership’s vision has not yet been fully adopted at all levels of the Air Force.”

Andrew Rush, chief executive of space manufacturing company Made In Space, emphasized the government’s role in fostering the development of new technologies and businesses. He said grants from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and access to both parabolic aircraft flights and the International Space Station helped demonstrate the company’s 3-D printing technology, which has now attracted commercial interest.

“Without infrastructure like the Flight Opportunities program, the SBIR program and the International Space Station, we could not develop this capability at the price that we developed it at, nor in a step-by-step fashion,” he said.

He said NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which operates the portion of the ISS designated a national laboratory, should do more to encourage “commercial pathfinding” on the station like what Made In Space has done, in part to develop applications that can make use of future commercial space stations.

“We need a stepwise transition to expand operations first on ISS, and then perhaps next on a commercial module attached to ISS, and then ultimately to a free flyer,” he said.

Bigelow, whose company is developing expandable modules for use on the ISS or as standalone space stations, also urged NASA to better develop plans to transition research from the ISS to commercial stations. He noted his company is maintaining plans to have two of its B330 modules, each with 330 cubic meters of volume, ready for launch by the end of 2020 for use in low Earth orbit or cislunar space.

“NASA is too focused on just transportation systems to the ISS,” he said, referring to NASA-supported development of commercial cargo and crew spacecraft. “Everyone wants to know what are NASA’s plans to transition out of the ISS. Whether the ISS continues or not, additional destinations besides the ISS are vital to sustain a viable space crew and cargo enterprise with new markets that eventually replace the ISS.”

Legislative plans
Cruz, in a later discussion with reporters, said this hearing was the beginning of an effort to review commercial spaceflight issues that could lead to legislation that builds upon the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, passed in 2015.

“This hearing is the first in a series of hearings to lay the groundwork for a new Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that facilitates and expands commercial space launch capabilities and ensures that we have the regulatory system, incentives and property rights to continue growing private investment,” he said

Cruz didn’t state when such a bill would be introduced, although industry sources said it could happen later this year. “We’re going to spend some time listening and learning first,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...