WASHINGTON — A House hearing on space mining turned into a partisan debate about both the viability of the nascent field and the jurisdiction of the committee to examine it.

The oversight and investigation subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee took up the topic of mining the moon and asteroids for the first time at a Dec. 12 hearing, where witnesses argued that space resource extraction could be essential for the future of the United States but required both careful study and government support.

“Humanity stands on a precipice of a new era, one that will be defined by space development and utilization of space resources,” said Eric Sundby, chief executive of mineral exploration company TerraSpace and executive director of the Space Force Association. “Space holds an endless amount of opportunity for America.”

However, he and some other witnesses cautioned that the United States was at risk of falling behind China in extracting space resources. “Any delay in America’s development of space resources, no matter how well intended, will leave the field to that rapacious regime,” Greg Autry, a professor at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, said of China.

Michelle Hanlon, executive director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Air and Space Law, provided a similar assessment. “Winning requires only getting there first,” she said. Interpretations of the concept of “due regard” in the Outer Space Treaty, she argued, could mean that a spacecraft that lands or even crashes on the moon or other celestial body could create an exclusion zone that would reserve the mineral resources within it. “We must accelerate our efforts to assure continued access to extraterrestrial resources.”

A fourth witness, though, offered a more cautionary view about space mining. “I am not opposed to mining in space. Personally, I think there may be more positive outcomes than negative,” said Moses Milazzo, a planetary scientist and owner of the consulting company Other Orb. However, he said any decisions on whether and how to proceed with space mining should be examined by a committee with representation from science and industry but also including cultural experts, ethicists and others to fully review the potential benefits and impacts.

The hearing revealed a sharp partisan divide on the issue. “Space mining is more and more a necessity,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), chairman of the subcommittee, based on the growing demand for minerals like rare earth metals and concerns about relying on China for them.

Democrats, though, raised questions about the need for space mining or even a hearing about it. “It is an important conversation to be had in the committee that can consider legislation about it. Newsflash: that committee is not this one,” said Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Calif.) She said she asked the committee’s Republican leadership for a “clear jurisdictional justification” for the Natural Resources committee to take up space mining but never received a response.

Democrats argued that the issue of space mining should instead be considered by the House Science Committee, which has previously taken up the topic, including legislation about rights to extracted space resources that became law in the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.

“The committee does have jurisdiction on this issue,” countered Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chairman of the full Natural Resources committee, later in the hearing. The committee’s jurisdiction, as stated on its website, does mention “mining interests generally” but not specifically resources beyond the Earth.

Democrats also questioned whether space mining was a near-term priority, particularly if it requires government support. That prioritization includes “whether to not it makes sense to try to outcompete China by unilaterally spending billions of dollars to subsidize private industry for 60 to 80 years out in the future,” said. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.), ranking member of the subcommittee.

One Republican member of the subcommittee also questioned space mining, but on different grounds. “Looking to space for minerals where they may be plentiful is interesting, but it will present incredible access challenges,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), who called himself a “skeptic” on the topic. He said any consideration of space mining should be balanced by the “immediate advantages of more cost effective and less risk intensive resource mining here at home.”

Witness tried to stay above the partisan debate. “I’m hoping, frankly, to keep space as a nonpartisan domain,” said Autry after a line of questions from Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) veered into allegations that China provided money to the president’s son, Hunter Biden. Autry said after the hearing that he wanted to use the hearing to build support for funding for NASA science and technology programs that could benefit space mining, as well as programs in other agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey that could include “dual use” technologies for mining in space and on Earth.

“One thing that kind of makes me sad here is that we have the opportunity to reach across the aisle and agree on quite a number of things that we’re talking about here,” said Milazzo, such as funding dual-use mining technologies. “We have to approach this in a collaborative manner rather than an acrimonious manner.”

AstroForge satellite struggles

One space mining company briefly mentioned at the hearing was AstroForge, a startup with long-term plans to mine asteroids for metals. The company launched its first spacecraft, a 6U cubesat called Brokkr-1 designed to test its refining technology, on the Transporter-7 rideshare mission in April.

In a Dec. 11 update, AstroForge revealed the company has run into problems trying to operate the spacecraft since its launch. That problem was linked to a design flaw discovered before the cubesat’s launch where the magnetic field created by the refining payload would interfere with the spacecraft’s ability to actively maintain its orientation. The company decided to proceed with the launch even though it means that it would “be passively stabilized in a wobble, eventually settling in an orientation where we lose communication.”

The company said it took longer than expected to first identify the spacecraft from the more than 50 deployed on the rideshare mission, then establishing communications with it. By September, AstroForge was able to deploy the cubesat’s solar arrays and activate the refinery payload in November.

“Now it’s a race against time to complete the refinery checkouts and demonstrations before the satellite stabilizes and we lose the ability to command completely,” AstroForge stated. “We estimate that to be in another three months.”

Despite the problems with Brokkr-1, the company is pressing ahead with a second spacecraft that will perform a flyby of a near Earth asteroid and take high-resolution images of it. That mission, originally called Brokkr-2 but since renamed Odin, is on track to launch as a rideshare payload on the IM-2 lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines in 2024.

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...