Op-ed | Space Settlement Act should guide Nelson’s NASA tenure

by and

As former U.S. lawmaker Bill Nelson awaits Senate confirmation of his nomination to lead NASA, it is perhaps time to recall a policy he voted for some 30 years ago. 

As chairman of a House space subcommittee, Nelson presided over consideration of the Space Settlement Act of 1988, which was added as a provision to the NASA Authorization Act, and ultimately signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The law states in part:

P.L. 100-685. Sec 217 (a) The Congress declares that the extension of human life beyond Earth’s atmosphere, leading ultimately to the establishment of space settlements, will fulfill the purposes of advancing science, exploration and development and will enhance the general welfare.

Section 217 (c) of the law further required NASA to provide a report every two years to the president and Congress on subjects related to enabling permanent human presence in space. The report was produced once and then terminated, unfortunately, as a “good government” measure. The law was largely lost to time and bureaucracy. 

As long as we delay consideration of space settlements at the policy level, we will not be able to engage in meaningful discussions on how government can encourage, enable, and benefit from such off-world communities.

A C-SPAN screenshot of then-U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) chairing a NASA Authorization hearing in 1988.

We understand that space is hard, and human spaceflight is even harder. While space settlement policy may seem too visionary for some, serious-minded technologists and the wealthiest people on Earth are speaking frankly about expanding the human reach deeper into space, and more permanently.

We need bold leadership to enable the evolution of communities beyond Earth.

As President Biden’s nominee for NASA administrator, Nelson should look back on the vision and inspiration of the Space Settlement Act to guide his actions. He should restore the Sec. 217(c) reports as a first step toward needed policy action.

As a next step, we need to commit to creating the proper policy framework, both U.S. and international, to support and enable the creation of communities beyond Earth. The set of international space laws that have provided guidance for decades are not adequate to the task by themselves. We could get tied in knots interpreting terrestrial law, attempting to apply it to space. Or we can take this on with a clean sheet.

Many policy questions need to be answered if communities beyond Earth are to become a reality: 

  • What are the technology gaps for enabling space communities and how do we prioritize related research?
  • What export-control questions need to be addressed to allow international participation in global efforts to design and construct large scale habitats?
  • What are the appropriate and creative financing regimes to pay for and sustain these communities?
  • What are the recognized norms of behavior within space communities and between them?
  • What are the mechanisms for approving and permitting the construction of physical facilities to house these communities? 

In an effort to answer these questions, the authors along with a cohort of policy veterans formed the Beyond Earth Institute, a unique policy think tank devoted to creating and sustaining a legal and policy framework that enables equitable opportunities for all interested humans to live in economically vibrant, self-governing communities beyond Earth.

Smart players in the space sector, those with a long-term interest, would be wise to weigh in and to align their activities to support and ultimately benefit from this eventuality.

To those who still think supporters of space settlement are ahead of their time, we say we are playing catch-up. We are at the cusp of human expansion into space, and our space policy apparatus is unprepared.

In 1988, it was interesting to consider space policy to expand human civilization into space. Today it is an imperative we cannot ignore. 

We encourage Mr. Nelson to revive the Sec 217 (c) report. And we call on him and all space policymakers to work with the Beyond Earth Institute toward creating a legal and policy framework that will enable economically vibrant, self-governing communities beyond Earth.

Steve Wolfe is president and co-founder of Beyond Earth Institute, and partner at CWSP International. He served as space policy adviser to former House Science Committee Chairman George E. Brown, Jr. (D-Calif.), who died in 1999. 

Tony DeTora is a co-founder and vice president of policy coherence at the Beyond Earth Institute, and the vice president of government relations at Lynk Global, Inc. Tony served as senior policy adviser to former U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif) and the House Science Committee.