Commercial space policy rarely grabs the attention of the mainstream media. Yet, in December, the New York Post felt compelled to sing the praises of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, signed into law just before Thanksgiving. “America’s next Gold Rush might be out of this world,” the tabloid declared in an editorial.
What attracted the attention of the Post, and many others, was a small part of the bill dealing with space resources. U.S. citizens who obtain space resources, such as by mining asteroids or the moon, would own those resources thanks to the new law.
That section of the legislation — just a few hundred words in a bill that runs nearly 20 pages — has received an outsized share of attention, surprising even the bill’s supporters. That’s unfortunate, since it overlooks other portions of the bill that, for the foreseeable future, are likely to be far more valuable to the emerging commercial spaceflight industry than space resource rights.
Who benefits from those other sections of the bill? Commercial launch providers, including Orbital ATK, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. The bill extends launch indemnification, where the government agrees to cover any third-party damages above a level the launch company must insure against. Such protection, launch companies have long argued, is necessary to remain competitive internationally. Past extensions have typically been just a few years at a time, but the new act extends indemnification for nearly a decade, from the end of 2016 until September 2025: the closest the industry is likely to get to a permanent extension.
Other winners are companies planning commercial human spaceflight, be it orbital or suborbital. The bill gives industry a lengthy extension of the “learning period” that restricts the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to enact regulations governing the safety of spaceflight participants. The learning period, which was to expire in early 2016, now runs until September 2023.
The learning period was originally created to give suborbital vehicle companies time to build up flight experience that could serve as the basis of either industry standards or government regulations. The industry has taken far longer to develop than originally thought, but there are encouraging signs that companies will be flying in the near future. And if a lack of flight experience is still an issue in 2023, the industry probably will have bigger concerns than the threat of government regulations.
Another section of the bill allows companies developing suborbital vehicles to retain an experimental permit — a streamlined version of a launch license intended solely for test flights — once they receive a full-fledged FAA operating license. Before the act, the permit expired once a company got its license.
Blue Origin, for example, currently has an experimental permit for test flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle. Company officials have discussed beginning commercial research flights, which would require a license, in 2016 while continuing test flights toward their long-term goal of flying people.
The act also helps NASA by creating a new class of people flying on commercial spacecraft: “government astronauts.” When Congress last updated commercial launch laws in 2004, few anticipated NASA astronauts would fly on private vehicles. Instead, the emphasis was on thrill seekers who would be willing to waive some liability protections to go to space. NASA’s commercial crew program changed that. The new “government astronaut” class will allow NASA and international partner astronauts to fly on commercial vehicles without those liability waivers, removing a potential legal roadblock for Boeing and SpaceX’s plans to fly crews to the space station.
Asteroid mining might one day create an extraterrestrial gold rush, making the resource rights established by the bill as valuable as its proponents claim them to be. But that gold rush will require the existence of an effective commercial space transportation industry that other parts of the bill help support.