Congress passes bill for min­ing re­sources in outer space

Pri­vate com­pa­nies to own as­ter­oid hauls

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

The stuff of science fic­tion is about to be U.S. law af­ter Congress ap­proved the Space Act, paving the way for pri­vate com­pa­nies to own any nat­u­ral re­sources they man­age to mine from as­ter­oids.

With po­ten­tially tril­lions of dol­lars at stake, fu­tur­ists said the bill is a bold state­ment of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship, keep­ing the bur­geon­ing pri­vate space­flight in­dus­try free of heavy gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions and ex­tend­ing what’s been dubbed the “learn­ing pe­riod” of free­wheel­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that com­pa­nies have re­lied on to test their plans with­out fear of crip­pling law­suits.

The leg­is­la­tion also ex­tends the U.S. com­mit­ment to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion and clears the way for gov­ern­ment as­tro­nauts to fly on pri­vate space­craft, giv­ing NASA a fu­ture al­ter­na­tive to hitch­ing a ride on Rus­sian rock­ets at $70 mil­lion a flight.

“This bill en­cour­ages the pri­vate sec­tor to launch rock­ets, take risks and shoot for the stars,” said Rep. La­mar Smith, Texas Repub­li­can and chair­man of the Science Com­mit­tee.

The bill passed the House on a voice vote af­ter clear­ing the Se­nate last week on a unan­i­mous vote. It now goes to Pres­i­dent Obama, who had sug­gested tweaks ear­lier in the process, but has not threat­ened a veto of the bi­par­ti­san bill.

An­a­lysts dubbed the leg­is­la­tion an early at­tempt at set­ting some of the rules for com­mer­cial space, but it’s filled with as­pi­ra­tional lan­guage that en­vi­sions the heav­ens teem­ing with hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties. One sec­tion even di­rects the U.S. gov­ern­ment to de­velop a plan to han­dle “or­bital traf­fic man­age­ment” for all of the space traf­fic that’s ex­pected.

A few crit­ics said they were trou­bled by the bill’s grant of li­a­bil­ity im­mu­nity to space­flight com­pa­nies, putting re­spon­si­bil­ity on pas­sen­gers.

Rep. Ed­die Ber­nice John­son, Texas Demo­crat, said she didn’t see how the bill could on the one hand deem the in­dus­try is so de­vel­oped that it is now al­lowed to carry gov­ern­ment as­tro­nauts but not de­vel­oped enough to al­low the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion to im­pose rules.

“When an in­evitable accident with a sig­nif­i­cant loss of life oc­curs … the Amer­i­can pub­lic will look back at what we’re do­ing to­day and won­der how we could be so short-sighted,” she said.

The bill also gives space lawyers plenty to ar­gue over — in­clud­ing whether the U.S. is al­lowed to rec­og­nize pri­vate com­pa­nies’ rights to mine ma­te­rial from as­ter­oids for their own gain.

“A United States cit­i­zen en­gaged in com­mer­cial re­cov­ery of an as­ter­oid re­source or a space re­source un­der this chap­ter shall be en­ti­tled to any as­ter­oid re­source or space re­source ob­tained, in­clud­ing to possess, own, trans­port, use, and sell the as­ter­oid re­source or space re­source ob­tained in ac­cor­dance with ap­pli­ca­ble law, in­clud­ing the in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tions of the United States,” the leg­is­la­tion states.

Some an­a­lysts said that con­tra­dicts the Outer Space Treaty, which the U.S. rat­i­fied in 1967, and which de­clares no coun­try can ap­pro­pri­ate part of outer space.

But oth­ers say that only pre­vents gov­ern­ments from own­ing outer space, and com­pa­nies will­ing to risk their money — and, po­ten­tially, their lives — to mine as­ter­oids will pre­vail on their claims.

“This will be in­evitably the sub­ject of in­ter­na­tional dis­cus­sions,” said Henry R. Hertzfeld, a re­search pro­fes­sor of space pol­icy at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity.

He said he does not be­lieve the bill is a vi­o­la­tion of treaties, and said the Space Act gen­er­ally re­flects in law some­thing that has al­ready been U.S. gov­ern­ment pol­icy for years.

Two com­pa­nies — Plan­e­tary Re­sources and Deep Space In­dus­tries — have al­ready an­nounced in­ten­tions to mine as­ter­oids.

John S. Lewis, who is now Deep Space In­dus­tries’ chief sci­en­tist, pre­dicted in a 1996 book that the value of the min­er­als cir­cling in the as­ter­oid belt be­tween Mars and Jupiter is “equiv­a­lent to about 100 bil­lion dol­lars for ev­ery per­son on Earth to­day.”

And even if as­ter­oids aren’t mined for Earth, he said they could sup­ply min­er­als needed to build space struc­tures if col­o­niza­tion of the so­lar sys­tem be­comes a re­al­ity. Comets, mean­while, could pro­vide wa­ter — made up of hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen — needed to pro­duce fuel.

Plan­e­tary Re­sources said it was ec­static with Mon­day’s vote, and com­pared it to the Home­stead Act of 1862 that helped open the Amer­i­can fron­tier to ex­plo­ration for gold and tim­ber, say­ing the Space Act will cre­ate a new econ­omy.

“This off-planet econ­omy will for­ever change our lives for the bet­ter here on Earth,” said Chris Lewicki, the com­pany’s pres­i­dent and chief en­gi­neer.

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