By Talia Loucks
Remember last year’s blog article about Asteroid Mining? Well, late last month, President Obama signed into law what was then titled the SPACE Act of 2015, which has since been renamed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. This Act lays the groundwork for property rights in space, a big point of contention in international law. As a quick refresher: the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to which the US is a signatory, provides in Article II that: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Some worry that the new Act is in opposition of this portion of the Treaty.
This Act does more than address property rights, however. It covers all aspects of space commerce: launch, orbital management and space debris, spacecraft streamlining, it creates an entirely new Office of Space Commerce, and only in the very last portion of the Act are property rights in space addressed. The bulk of the Act covers all of the details needed to get into space. Additionally, it requires the Office of Space Commerce to create, six months from now, a detailed report on how the Act will be implemented.
One big change that may come is a transfer of the space management role to the FAA. Currently, the Air Force is largely in charge of monitoring space traffic. Due to the growth of the space industry, helped along even more so by the new Act, orbital traffic is due to increase a great deal. But funding to support this role played by the Air Force is unlikely to increase. Changes must be made in order to streamline the process of monitoring space traffic. The Act provides an avenue for implementing those changes. Specifically, the President is to provide a report to Congress within six months that includes “recommendations for the allocations among Federal agencies,” in addition to discouraging government barriers to U.S. development of safe, viable, and stable commercial space industry.
As the title of the Act suggests, the private sector will increase its involvement in space launches and reentries. This will be possible due, in large part, to the streamlining process for launch activities outlined in section 113 of the Act. The drafting of this Act has been somewhat holistic in nature, providing the framework to take an industry regulated heavily by many different government agencies, and shifting the responsibility to more appropriate agencies and even to the private sector itself.
Returning to the big issue of property rights, the last section of the Act provides that any U.S. citizen who engages in commercial recovery of a space resource is entitled to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the resource. However, the Act ends by stating, “the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.” So, the U.S. is going to support citizen’s commercial recovery of resources, making new commercial space companies that much more viable.
According to the president of the International Institute of Space Law, Tanja Masson-Zwaan, we will have to wait for the reports on the law’s implementation from the Office of Space Commerce to see what the international implications will truly be. One thing is for sure, though, the Act poses the U.S. to continue to be a leader in the space industry.
Image source: NASA.