I don’t like the title of this piece. I don’t like that I have to write it. Yet I have to. Why? Because, based on their actions (not their words) it is becoming ever clearer that there is a faction in our national government that does not want our private citizens to open the High Frontier of space.
The most recent example is the White House National Space Council’s “Novel Space Activities Authorization and Supervision Framework.” Ostensibly created to “create an agile framework that can respond to changing needs as we scale to the future,” the December 2023 document is more a leash than a catalyst for the creative economic expansion of the newspace revolution now underway.
Clearly born out of the United States government response to international pressures to control what those crazy American disruptors might do in space, just look at the title for the tell. “Novel?” The document defines this term as referring to anything “not directly regulated under the current U.S. regulatory regime.” It may be true that American citizen space activities are considered “novel” from the global bureaucracy’s perspective, while government space projects and programs are considered routine, the baseline, and the standard. However, it is a poor choice of words for our own government to adopt this language. Words have meaning, and coming out the gate, labeling the space equivalent of the diverse and dynamic American private sector economy as “novel” is a bad sign.
The document admits it was “in part, developed and is being implemented to meet the nation’s international obligations as a State Party to the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, opened for signature on January 27, 1967 (Outer Space Treaty).” This motivation to respond to the Outer Space Treaty isunderstandable. But it is one thing to honor international obligations, another to create a byzantine bureaucratic maze that emulates those of the very states our innovative private sector continuously outperforms.
The White House document appears to be designed to serve two primary purposes: To look busy in terms of satisfying both the need for a regulatory framework for the burgeoning U.S. private space sector that appeases the international community, and to play catch up when it comes to controlling the ever accelerating number and types of citizen-led space initiatives.
In the first instance, while adhering to the now ancient Outer Space Treaty, our government should be proactively creating the maximum amount of leeway for private space activities of all nations with the minimum amount of oversight — a pro freedom position that aligns with our national posture.
In the second, it is overshooting the mark by creating a web of interagency interactions that will in fact control the private sector in space by ensnaring it in the threads of various bureaucracies with no clear accountability nor ability for those private actors to understand or appeal the sources of those restraints. This trap begins by placing responsibility for setting and enforcing regulations in the hands of both the secretaries of Commerce and Transportation, giving neither the power nor leadership to create a streamlined system for approval of plans and projects. This one action on its own assures maximum confusion, expense and delay for anyone planning a new space project.
For all but the richest and most Washington-savvy, it may well be a death sentence. This is followed by language that infers the administration will preemptively establish various interagency groups to provide input and coordinate opinions. Anyone who has ever worked with government agencies knows the axiom that no bureaucrat ever lost their job by saying “no.” This document not only doubles the top level bureaucrats who can block an idea, it multiplies the possibilities to do so by introducing a list of others that will inevitably — simply to justify their existence — create opinions and hoops through which creators and companies will have to jump. Worse, at the end of the processes, appealing findings will be ponderous and accountability for any blockage will be all but impossible to ascertain.
Congress recently embarked on the same challenge as the White House: formulating a way for the national Cold War-derived space establishment to embrace and support its children — those space innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs building on our proud legacy to expand the domain of free people into space.
However, H.R. 6131, the Commercial Space Act of 2023, comes from the opposite polarity — in that it begins by trusting citizens over bureaucracy. Its language is peppered throughout with phrases that make it clear the U.S. will support and enable our own people’s dreams and ambitions — even while respecting international treaties and obligations. For example: “To the maximum extent practicable, the President, acting through appropriate Federal agencies, shall interpret and fulfill international obligations, including obligations under the covered treaties on outer space, to minimize regulations and limitations on the freedom of United States nongovernmental entities to explore and use outer space.”
This is what we need right now: to fulfill obligations while minimizing regulations — acceleration, not inhibition. To be clear, the private space sector isn’t looking for a Wild West in space. We need a well-crafted regulatory framework within which to operate — but not an opaque box whose keys are held by a committee of intergovernmental committees.
The White House document vests control in the netherworld between two agencies — something that is sure to result in citizen applicants being tossed between them, forcing them to spend extra time and funds to appease their interests, while subjecting them to the possibility of getting crushed in turf battles or lost in the cracks. The congressional document is clear. One agency, the Department of Commerce, is in charge of the job of managing interactions while: “The Secretary may, as the Secretary considers necessary, consult with the heads of other relevant agencies in carrying out the requirements of this chapter…”
It is, of course, no surprise that the document coming from the executive branch is motivated by the desire to control rather than support the private space sector. This branch of government is home to NASA, the Department of Defense, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Aviation Administration, who consider space to be their turf. This is understandable, as they and their fellow government agencies worldwide have essentially owned the space around Earth from the beginning.
Now, here come all these crazy science fiction–crazed dreamers with their wild-eyed “novel” ideas, building private rocket ships flying all over the place that are cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than the government’s, with plans for space stations catering to businesses and people doing who knows what, heck, maybe even private astronauts flying off to the Moon and Mars before the government gets there to make sure it’s safe for governments to get there.
Okay, maybe I’m being a bit cynical, but I’ve dealt with this system for a while now. Though it may not show up in the carefully worded preambles and PR of the agencies involved, our government maintains an inherent and deep distrust of and fundamental confusion about the private space sector. In fact, it is clear to me they are setting the “framework” to control not just what happens in LEO, but also who does what on the Moon and especially on Mars. As one known for advocating the U.S.-led human expansion beyond Earth, as recently as last year I had a high NASA official tell me we are “fringe.” Thus, as is the normal governmental response to something it doesn’t understand, the result is to try and overcontrol it.
I urge you to read both documents if you have or are planning to found, be part of, invest in, utilize, be a customer of, or live in a free nation that benefits from the opening of what my mentor Gerard K. O’Neill called the High Frontier. The differences are striking. In the White House document citizen-led projects are inhibited, whereas Congress path forward is being streamlined — even as safety and sustainability are preserved. Then call someone who can make a difference.
Unfortunately, on the Hill, H.R. 6131 and the White House framework are being pitted against each other as if this were a partisan debate. It is not. Far from it. And anyone on either side who tries to make it one is doing a disservice to all. There is too much at stake here to worry about turf, politics, or bureaucratic processes.
Mired as it has been in the swamp of semantics and self-serving selfie-splashing intransigence, Congress has actually produced something workable. Let’s celebrate it. Like the proverbial clock, even Congress gets it right once in a while. Look, this isn’t about right and left. It’s about up, and how fast America gets there.
The White House has a chance to take a chance on the American people. While it confuses me that the National Space Council — a group set up under the Office of the Vice President ostensibly to represent citizen’s interests and those of the space industry, would have anything to do with it — I know many staffers in many agencies put a lot of time into this document. All of their work is appreciated. Now, they have the opportunity for a teachable moment. All they have to do is reverse their premise. Trust the voters. Trust the people. The government’s role in space, as here on Earth, is to serve the needs of the people rather than having the people serve the needs of the government.
America needs a straightforward and easily navigated set of guidelines and regulations to enable our citizens to maximize their creativity and innovative abilities in support of the project of freedom, lest those nations who would enslave the Solar System seize the high ground and rule it for the next thousand years. And we need it now. It’s called H.R .6131. Please read it. Then call your representative and tell them to pass the Commercial Space Act
Rick Tumlinson Founded the EarthLight Foundation and SpaceFund, a venture capital firm. He Co-Founded The Space Frontier Foundation, was a founding board member of the XPrize, and hosts “The Space Revolution” on iRoc Space Radio, part of the iHeart Radio Network.