Space, like the oceans, is not too big to become polluted or for ships to engage in conflict

Space, like the oceans, is not too big to become polluted or for ships to engage in conflict
© NASA

The private space industry is poised to continue growing, from developers of space tourism and innovative satellite applications to moon developers, Mars colonists, and asteroid miners. Many of the big players so far are based in the U.S., yet policymakers (and international diplomats, too) have already fallen behind are struggling to catch up.

We’re in dire need of a single national organization dedicated to authorizing and regulating activities in orbit and beyond. Congress has the opportunity right now to take a step in that direction but only if it considerably improves upon the currently drafted American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act.

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The version that overwhelmingly passed the House on April 24 promotes the industry and satisfies the Trump administration’s goals, but it lacks bite. It calls for expanding the Office of Space Commerce — which currently only has a few staff members — to license spacecraft, but it’s not clear it would be up to the task or would offer more than rubber stamps on every rocket.

 

There has arguably been little public oversight of the tech industry, and though now behemoths like Facebook and Google have faced more scrutiny, Pandora’s box has already been opened. Space exploration isn’t in the same situation…yet.

If outer space activities remain insufficiently regulated, it could one day lead to conflicts between countries or companies and to environmental problems, like a junk-filled upper atmosphere, a blighted moon or Mars, or pulverized asteroids.

Licensing and approving launches used to be overseen by at least three different agencies, and this bill would consolidate those responsibilities under a single one. The bill has the Commerce Department presume that companies tell the truth that they’re not doing anything prohibitive, however. Yet, despite this lax wording, when it came to the House floor, no critical debate followed. They didn’t even need to count votes.

As it is now, to get approved, a company need only state that it’s not launching a weapon of mass destruction into space. Conventional weapons, such as ones that could take down satellites, are not illegal. Nor are spacecraft that could litter the atmosphere with debris. Nor ones that drill into the moon or hollow out a unique asteroid.

Space companies like SpaceX, Moon Express, and Planetary Resources are coming up with innovative ideas and technologies, and there’s nothing wrong with encouraging them. But at the same time, the government needs a debate about what kinds of space activities are desirable, and every mission concept should be scrutinized before deciding whether it gets the green light. 

Space, like the oceans, may seem vast, yet it’s not too big to become polluted or for ships to engage in conflicts. If a company wants to build structures on the moon, claim property rights on Mars, or extract valuable minerals from an asteroid, surely that warrants discussion.

We also have to meet our obligations of the Outer Space Treaty, which made the case in 1967 — two years before the moon landing — that space should be for peaceful purposes and for everyone and that people should avoid “harmful contamination” of space. The treaty also requires that countries provide “continuing supervision” of space activities, which would mean including oversight of missions as they proceed, not just choosing which ones to authorize.

This bill wouldn’t do any of those things. The agency that has all these responsibilities and determines America’s activities in space needs more authority, expertise, and staff. The shape that the future development of space takes depends on the priorities policymakers set today. Now it’s up to the Senate to do that job properly and prepare space exploration for lift off.

Ramin Skibba is an astrophysicist and science writer based in San Diego. His research includes observational and theoretical work on stars, dust, galaxies and dark matter.