The last decade and a half has seen an explosion in the private space industry. We’ve seen multiple new companies started many of which have now flown successful missions to the International Space Station. This is partly due to the regulatory framework that the USA adopted to spur on the private space industry as previously it was impenetrable for all but a few giant multinationals. Today congress passed a bill that ensures this regulatory framework can continue as is for some time whilst also providing a few provisions that will see a few major space projects continue for a while longer. In short it means that the amazing progress we’ve seen from the private space industry is likely to continue for at least the next decade.
Up until 2004 building and flying your own spacecraft (within the USA) was effectively illegal. Provisions were then made to allow commercial space flights by adopting a “learning period”, essentially preventing the FAA from enforcing flight regulations on private space companies. Whilst this doesn’t make them exempt from any law, ostensibly this transfers the responsibility onto any participants in private space flights, it does give private space companies the room they need to develop their technologies. That period was set to end next year however the recently passed bill will extend that for another 7 years before the Department of Transportation takes over and begins to fully regulate the industry.
There’s also further provisions for ensuring that private space companies can compete and innovate without unnecessary burdens. The first provision is the extension of the indemnification of commercial launches, essentially a risk sharing framework that ensures US based private space companies can compete with overseas launches. There’s also a directive to several government agencies to develop the proper oversight framework for commercial space activities. This will mean a formalization of the many ad-hoc processes that are currently used and should hopefully mean a reduction in some of the headaches that private space companies currently face.
Probably the biggest bit of news out of this bill however was the provision for extending the USA’s involvement in the International Space Station to 2024, a 4 year extension over the current mission time frame. The last time the deadline was extended was 6 years ago and nearly everyone thought that would be the end of it since that matched the originally intended lifespan of the station. Without a replacement forthcoming (Tiangong doesn’t count) this gives us a little more breathing room to come up with a replacement or better plan for the future of our only manned space station.
One interesting provision, and one I’m sure Planetary Resources is excited about, is the establishment of legal rights to resources recovered from space by a private entity. Essentially this means that if you were to say, mine an asteroid and send its resources down to Earth, you now have the same legal rights over them as you would if you mined them here. There’s also a directive in there for the president to pursue off-world resource exploration and recovery which will likely mean increased focus in this space. It’s still something of a nascent industry so it’s good to see it getting recognition at this level.
Of course all of this comes without additional budgetary measures for NASA et. al. to meet these goals however it does lay a firm groundwork for more funding to be put aside. Hopefully when the next budget rolls around these additional objectives will be taken into consideration as otherwise it could just end up putting more strain on NASA’s current projects. For the private space industry however it means a long extension for the conditions they’ve enjoyed over the past decade, conditions which have seen amazing progress. Hopefully the next decade is just as good as the first.