Commercial Space Industry Would Benefit From Space Act, Critics Say
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, complain all you want about Congress not acting on key issues here on earth. Out in space, it's an entirely different story. Last month, Congress passed a very forward-looking bill. The Space Act allows American companies to harvest and trade resources in outer space. They can actually mine asteroids, once they're able to reach them. Audrey Quinn from our Planet Money team looks at how to regulate an industry before it exists.
AUDREY QUINN, BYLINE: Rick Tumlinson's chairman of a company called Deep Space Industries, and he has a dream for this business - to go up to an asteroid, drill into it, and harvest things like iron and ice to sell. His company is one of two that have already invested millions of dollars into this vision - to supply travelers in outer space, or at least the travelers they're expecting in outer space.
RICK TUMLINSON: They're going out there. And at some point, they're going to need the equivalent of gas and air and water and building materials.
QUINN: All that stuff could come from asteroids. All the elements are there. If Deep Space Industries can mine the goods, they could set up asteroids as the Kwik-E-Marts of outer space travel.
TUMLINSON: So we're going to get out there early and be ready when they arrive.
QUINN: Here's my question though - like, as of right now, there's no demand and there's no supply. How is this a business?
TUMLINSON: It is a long business plan. But we know it's coming.
QUINN: He says, sure, they haven't proved they can get these resources out of asteroids. And their space-traveling customers haven't even taken off yet. But he thinks it's just inevitable that humans will be roaming the stars at some point.
Will we be mining asteroids in five years?
QUINN: How about 10 years?
TUMLINSON: Within 10 years, we plan on bringing back our first samples and proving the capability of the spacecraft.
QUINN: But the only way this is a viable business is if the government says it's legal to own what you chip out of an asteroid.
TUMLINSON: I've had investors say to me, the thing that they were nervous about was, would we be allowed to keep the resources and put them into a market once we had them?
QUINN: Which is why Congress has decided that now is the time to pass this bill, so companies like Deep Space Industries can move forward. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson heads the House Democrats' Science Committee.
EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: Well, the bill did pass. It passed without my vote.
QUINN: She says the new bill's pretty much a handout to the commercial space industry. It has zero safety provisions and basically gives these rights out for free. But most importantly, there's already an international agreement that addresses outer space materials.
JOHNSON: There is a treaty that was passed to protect those elements. So I think was in 1967...
QUINN: The Outer Space Treaty.
JOHNSON: Yes. Now, this bill renders that almost null and void.
QUINN: The Outer Space Treaty - that's not shorthand, that's the title - said no country can claim sovereignty in space. The concern here is that the U.S. is handing out mining rights to things in space that might count as sovereignty. Right now, the U.S. is the only country to pass a bill like this. It's unclear what happens if other countries pass contradictory laws. Meanwhile, space agencies in other countries are meeting with lawyers. And the U.N. will be taking up the issue next year. Audrey Quinn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.