House lawmakers debate how rigorously to regulate activities in space

Ledyard King
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket  launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last month. The company's CEO, Elon Musk, wants to fly tourists to the moon.

WASHINGTON — The Final Frontier needs boundaries, too.

With private entrepreneurs eager to launch tourists into Low Earth Orbit, service satellites and mine the moon, lawmakers are debating what sorts of regulations should be adopted to manage the increased commerce expected to take place in space over the next decade.

Partisan differences over the role that government should play quickly emerged at a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Republicans advocated a model that encourages free enterprise.

“Over the years, as I have tried to figure out how the world works, government bureaucratic regulation is actually the most efficient method known to man for turning pure energy into solid waste,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.

Democrats said rules aren’t always a bad idea.

“There is some level between the Wild West and the police state where we need some level of regulation,” countered Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. “We don’t want to stop innovation here but we also need to protect property rights and safety and defense.”

Congress’ ultimate authority to write those rules is tied to the Outer Space Treaty, the 50-year-old pact that forms the basis of international space law. Much remains up for interpretation since it was initially ratified two years before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and decades prior to the emergence of a thriving but still-nascent commercial space industry.

Texas GOP Rep. Lamar Smith, who chairs the House panel, told lawmakers the pact “is a treaty of principles, with great discretion granted to the United States on how to implement its obligations.”

Some of that regulatory framework was drafted as part of a commercial space bill Congress passed in 2015. Among its provisions was one granting rights to resources extracted by U.S. companies from asteroids, the moon and other bodies in the solar system.

Read more:

SpaceX to fly 2 paying customers to the moon next year

Obama expected to sign bill delaying commercial space safety deadline

Glenn Reynolds: Cashing in on the Final Frontier

The bill also extended the deadline  — until Sept. 30, 2023 — that industry now has to meet certain safety standards for human spaceflight, providing companies valuable time to develop their technology and work through issues without potentially costly and burdensome rules.

In an echo of the concerns raised at Wednesday's hearing, some Democrats at the time objected to delaying those standards because they said the government and the industry already knew what is needed to protect passengers.

Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy, told the committee he’s no fan of over-regulation. But he also warned lawmakers that waiting too long on rulemaking could hurt national security and economic interests.

“The last thing I would like to see happen is for other nations to develop rules that we then become forced to follow,” he said. “We need to lead. We need to develop rules that are right for the U.S. and then we need to convince the rest of the world that those rules are the ones they should follow.”