Congress Considers Outer-Space Regulation Reforms

Published June 11, 2017

After a congressional hearing on how federal regulations block private individuals and businesses from operating in Earth’s orbit and beyond in April, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) launched a follow-up hearing to consider testimony from business owners and policy experts about how federal and international regulations are keeping the private sector grounded.

At the May 23 hearing, lawyers and business owners testified about how international laws and treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, interfere with potential private-sector space activities, such as mining, terrestrial observation, and tourism.

‘An Infinite Economy’

Andrew Gasser, president of Tea Party in Space, a nonprofit organization promoting rapid and permanent private-sector-led expansion into space, says relaxing regulatory burdens on the space industry could have an astronomical impact.

“In space, you have an infinite economy,” Gasser said. “It’s finite, but for our level of comprehension and understanding, there’s an infinite amount of resources. There are literally trillions of dollars, identified in asteroids beyond the moon but closer to Earth than Mars, in rare-earth metals, platinum, nickel, gold, silver, and other things that we could go get and bring back to Earth, to help us with things like electronics and medical fields.”

Relaxing and removing outdated or unnecessary regulatory burdens is essential for the future of this industry, Gasser says.

“There’s a Silicon Valley saying: ‘Innovate or die,'” Gasser said. “Quite frankly, the U.S. government needs to innovate or die. The United States is the greatest country on the face of this planet, and there is no one who can innovate like our free-market, capitalistic model. The only thing that is limiting us is the federal government and its onerous regulations that it places on the American people.”

Held Back by Regulatory Bloat

Aaron Oesterle, policy director for the nonpartisan Space Frontier Foundation, says outdated regulations and bureaucratic inertia are thwarting progress.

“Back in the day, we just assumed it’d be a certain way, and now we’re looking at changing it,” Oesterle said. “It’s not any sort of malfeasance, but a long-term history of ‘we did it this way.’ There are regulations that we structured 20–30 years ago, back in the 1990s, when it made sense to do them that way. It’s very hard to get some of the regulatory reform done, because it’s a small office within the Department of Transportation, so trying to get everything in line, so we can have a full review of the regulations, is very difficult.”  

Charting a New Course

Done correctly, reforming space regulations could unleash “a universe of possibilities” for consumers and entrepreneurs alike, Oesterle says.

“Space is awash in resources,” Oesterle said. “It’s a universe of possibilities out there. If we want to tap into that and allow people to find their own way and grow and prosper, we can use the cosmos to spread peace, prosperity, and freedom to everybody.

“The way you’re going to do that is allow the possibility for the average Joe Smith to go up and say, ‘I’m going to create my own future in space,'” Oesterle said. “If we want that, then we fundamentally have to change our relationship with space. That means changing the regulations.