Rep Jim Bridenstine, R-Oklahoma has rolled out his American Space Renaissance Act, a wide-ranging bill designed to reform a number of areas where the government and space interact. The bill has some provisions for the Department of Defense and NASA. But the portion of the bill that reforms how the government regulates commercial space has many space advocates intrigued.

The bill would expand the FAA’s purview to regulate and approve “nontraditional activities.” Bridenstine lists human habitats, such as the proposed Bigelow B330 based private space station, and on orbit servicing of satellites.

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The provision might also include such activities as asteroid mining and private expeditions to the moon and other destinations, such as being contemplated by the participants in the Google Lunar X Prize.

Currently, the regulatory structure of the FAA, which uses guidance from a number of federal departments and agencies, is set up solely to license launches to Earth orbit, such as communications satellites. One of the frontrunners for the Google Lunar X Prize, Moon Express, has been told that the State Department will refuse to sign off on its plan to send a rover to the lunar surface as it is not set up for examining and approving such missions.

South Pole of the Moon (Credit NASA)
South Pole of the Moon (Credit NASA)

The company is scrambling to arrive at an interim solution, called “mission approval,” until something like the Bridenstine bill is passed and signed into law. Government red tape is currently the main impediment for private companies that want to explore beyond low Earth orbit. Under the Outer Space Treaty, the responsible government, in this case the United States, has to ensure that any commercial space mission does not interfere with the space activities of any other signatory state.

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The situation with the other front runner for the private race to the moon, SpaceIL, is even more tangled. The responsible country for SpaceIL would seem to be the State of Israel. However, the Israeli team’s lunar lander is contracted to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from American soil. Does that make the United States a secondary responsible country that therefore must sign off on the mission? Right now the matter is in diplomatic and regulatory limbo, which perhaps the Bridenstine bill will rescue it from.

 

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