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Politics Stops at the Atmosphere's Edge

Last month, just before Americans began a long weekend of gratitude, family and Christmas shopping, the president quietly signed into law a remarkable bill: the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA).

The bill is remarkable both for how it was passed and for what it does — and both tell a story of hope for America.Defending Congress and the policy process can be lonely work, especially when the country seems to veer from shutdown to debt limit increase, and back. But the passage of CSLCA demonstrated that disparate voices in Congress can still come together to accomplish something meaningful, and that the administration can help, too.

CSLCA was the first overhaul of commercial space-launch law in over a decade. The U.S. commercial space industry, which is small but rapidly adding jobs and gaining attention, needed a new framework within which to grow. Fortunately, several leaders in Congress were ready to take up the challenge.

In the House, Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and his colleagues held a series of hearings, working with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to introduce and mark up the SPACE Act, which the House then passed with 48 Democratic votes, for 68 percent of total House votes.

In the Senate, Science, Space and Competitiveness Subcommittee Chairman Ted Cruz (R-Texas) worked with full Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to introduce the first version of CSLCA, which went on to pass the Senate by unanimous consent.

While this was underway, a series of more targeted space-related bills was also moving forward. One of these, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, had its own tale of bipartisan cooperation. Originally introduced in the House by conservative Florida Republican Bill Posey and moderate Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer, it was modified — with helpful attention from the administration — and introduced in the Senate by liberal Washington Democrat Patty Murray and conservative Florida Republican Marco Rubio.As negotiations between the House and Senate proceeded, the bipartisan team came to a compromise between the SPACE Act and the first CSLCA, with several of the other bills included in the package. First passed in the Senate by unanimous consent earlier this month, it passed the House by voice vote the week before Thanksgiving. With the president's signature last week, the amended CSLCA became law — demonstrating that Congress, and the president, can still unite behind important legislation.

As impressive as its bipartisan passage was, the real story of CSLCA is in what it does. The commercial spaceflight industry is strategically vital for the United States. It bolsters our military spaceflight capabilities, expands NASA's reach, generates top-quality jobs and economic activity, and — perhaps most importantly — inspires the next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals and entrepreneurs in the same way that the Apollo program inspired a previous generation.

Recognizing the value of this industry, Congress wanted to provide legal certainty and to streamline regulations so that new and existing commercial spaceflight companies could grow, innovate and improve the safety and capability of their vehicles.

CSLCA extends for eight years a regulatory learning period that allows the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate for the safety of participants only in response to actual data, rather than conjecture. It extends current insurance risk-sharing requirements for 10 years, which helps keep launch providers in the United States. It extends liability protections to spaceflight participants for 10 years. It supports the development of industry-based consensus standards, which will facilitate safety improvements. And it requires the administration to find ways to improve a variety of processes so that U.S. launch providers have to jump through fewer hoops in order to launch.

The greatest long-term impact, however, will likely come from the space mining provision. (It should be noted that a single asteroid can contain metals worth trillions of dollars.) This part of the bill represents arguably the most sweeping legislative recognition of property rights ever enacted. It articulates a simple principle: As far as the United States is concerned, a U.S. citizen who obtains resources from an asteroid or other body in space is the owner of those resources.

That simple principle is a tremendously powerful one. It means that the United States is not requiring its citizens to ask permission, argue why they need the resources or do anything else beyond what is legally required for a launch license. U.S. companies that want to mine the cosmos for water, metals and other things of value may now do so, confident in the knowledge that the United States will recognize their property rights in whatever resources they obtain.In addition, U.S. space mining companies can now point to this law in conversations with potential investors as proof that political risk has been substantially reduced. This will help unlock more private-sector funding, advancing this sector and bringing us closer to the day when space resources are routinely mined.

Taken as a whole, CSLCA represents a major step forward for one of the nation's most strategically important industries. That so many leaders on Capitol Hill, from so many different political perspectives, worked together to get it done — again, with help from the administration — is a testament both to the value of commercial spaceflight and the capabilities of our elected officials.

Walsh is a former U.S. representative from New York, serving from 1989 to 2009. He is currently a government affairs counselor for K&L Gates LLP in Washington. Stimers is a partner at K&L Gates LLP, where he was the lead advocate for the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act and works with a number of commercial space companies. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of K&L Gates, its partners or employees.

Source: The Hill

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