The stuff of science fiction is about to be U.S. law after Congress approved the Space Act on Monday, 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.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, California Republican and House majority leader, who said it will usher in a “new era of innovation and adventure.” His district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is the chief civilian spacecraft testing facility in the U.S.
“This bill will unite law with innovation — allowing the next generation of pioneers to experiment, learn and succeed without being constrained by premature regulatory action,” he said.