Congress Says Yes to Space Mining, No to Rocket Regulations

Yesterday the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act passed through both congressional houses. The bill protects private spaceflight from regulatory oversight, giving the industry up to 10 years to get its innovations in place before government overseers step in and start counting rivets.
But more interesting (if less immediately applicable), the bill lets entreprenauts keep whatever nonliving souvenirs they find out in the void, opening the door to everything from asteroid-based gold mines to comet-collected rocket fuel. The next step is President Obama’s desk, but he’s likely to sign.
Going to space is risky business. Besides the upfront danger to life and rocket, astronomical investments are at stake, and certain government agencies want to reduce risk by imposing regulations on commercial spaceflight. At the forefront is the Federal Aviation Administration, which would like to manage spaceship specs much like it does commercial planes.
But the industry says regulations like that would hinder its progress to the stars. “Investing in space is a long term, high up front, and highly risky investment,” says Henry Hertzfeld, space policy researcher at George Washington University. Despite hyped stories about Mars colonies and Lance Bass in a cosmonaut suit, the commercial space industry is young and technologically immature. To build a rocket that can land on an ocean barge, or an egalitarian edge-of-space tourism company, the field needs more time, more innovation.
More money, too. But even the most space-crazed billionaire wouldn’t want to invest cash in a new, uncertain industry that also happens to be overly regulated. And Congress agrees, so, with the space bill, it gave the industry another eight years without regulatory oversight. Or at least, without much of it. The FAA still issues licenses for all US spacecraft launches and reentries.
“It’s a real vote of confidence from Congress that commercial space matters, and we can shape and grow the industry without the burdens of the federal government,” says Eric Stallmer, president of Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group.