US Capitol building

Two new bills before Congress seek to boost the commercial space industry.

The SOARS Act (HR 3038) is meant to stimulate suborbital and orbital human spaceflight, while the ASTEROIDS Act (HR 5063) focuses on deep space.

SOARS stands for Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining. The SOARS Act was introduced on 2 August 2013 by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), but it received little attention until December when Rep. McCarthy spoke about it during a meeting of the House Subcommitte on Space and Aeronautics.

McCarthy represents the district that includes Mojave Air and Space Port, while Posey’s district includes Cape Canaveral.

Posey is also sponsoring the ASTEROIDS Act, which stands for American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space. The bill was introduced this week by Posey and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA).

SOARS Act

The SOARS Act would enable the Office of Commercial Space Transportation would create a demonstration program for commercial space activities at FAA-licensed spaceports. The program would enroll no fewer than eight commercial businesses involved in direct or indirect support of commercial space launch activities, with at least one business at each spaceport. The demonstration program could include revenue-generating activities and the use of former military aircraft or vehicles designated as experimental by the Department of Transportation.

The demonstration program would last for at least three years. During that time, legal liability of participating businesses would be limited to actual damages. The Secretary of Transportation would be authorized to waive requirements and limitations of United States Code Title 51 Chapter 509 (“Commercial Space Launch Activities”) as necessary to carry out the demonstration project.

The SOARS Act could clear the way for spaceflight training and other revenue-generating space-related activities using former military aircraft, which are currently limited under FAA regulations. It could also open the door for suborbital vehicles to conduct revenue-generating activities under FAA experimental permits, before receiving a full launch license.

The bill would also fix a technical problem in the law that has affected Virgin Galactic, causing the company to ask the FAA to place its launch license application on hold.

ASTEROIDS Act

The ASTEROIDS Act seeks to clarify that resources mined from an asteroid are the property of the person or organization that obtained them and ensure that miners can conduct their operations without harmful interference.

“We may be many years away from successfully mining an asteroid, but the research to turn this from science fiction into reality is being done today,” Rep. Derek Kilmer said, “[but] businesses in Washington state and elsewhere are investing in this opportunity… in order to grow and create more jobs, they need greater certainty.”

“Asteroids are potential sources of highly valuable resources and minerals,” said Rep. Bill Posey. “Our knowledge of asteroids – their number, location, and composition – has been increasing at a tremendous rate, and space technology has advanced to the point where the private sector is now able to begin planning such expeditions. Our legislation will help promote private exploration and protect commercial rights as these endeavors move forward.”

The bill states that, “Any resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.” It also says that “any assertion of superior right to execute specific commercial asteroid resource utilization activities in outer space shall prevail if it is found to be first in time,” at least among companies subject to US law.”

The bill does not allow for claims of resources in place or real estate on extraterrestrial bodies. In fact, some observers note, it does not really guarantee any rights that are not already embodied in the non-interference clause of the Outer Space Treaty.

Space property rights have become a controversial issue in recent years. The Outer Space Treaty, drafted in the 1960’s, prohibits “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty” but is silent on the private property rights of individuals. From the very beginning, legal experts recognized that this silence left a door open for private enterprise. In 1969, Dr. Stephen Gorove, one of the great pioneers in space law and founder of the Journal of Space Law, wrote:

While further developments in space law, by international custom or treaty, may eventually prohibit spatial appropriations by an individual or a chartered company or the European communities, the Treaty in its present form appears to contain no prohibition regarding individual appropriation or acquisition by a private association or an international organization, even if other than the United Nations. Thus, at present, an individual acting on his own behalf or on behalf of another individual or a private association or an international organization could lawfully appropriate any part of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies.

Today, however, some lawyers seek to turn this logic on its head, arguing that the Outer Space Treaty’s silence on private property rights constitutes a prohibition on private property. Unfortunately, the ASTEROIDS Act fails to address that issue.

Outlook

The outlook for these bills is uncertain. Rep. Kevin McCarthy was recently promoted to the position of Majority Leader in the House, which should improve his ability to push legislation such as the SOARS Act. Neither act appears to have a companion bill in the Senate, however.

Whatever the outcome, it’s encouraging to see some members of Congress are finally acknowledging commercial space markets beyond NASA. For the past several years, Congress has generally treated commercial space as merely a euphemism for NASA contracts (a belief encouraged by many “new space” lobbyists). Perhaps that’s finally starting to change.

Written by Astro1 on July 11th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General), Space Policy and Management

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