“Reopening the American Frontier”

Last Wednesday US Senator Ted Cruz, a man who is quite clearly a space enthusiast, chaired a hearing on “Reopening the American Frontier: Reducing Regulatory Barriers and Expanding American Free Enterprise in Space.” The full hearing can be seen here. It is an interesting premise and Senator Cruz indicated that this will be the start of a series of hearings on the subject of ‘reopening the American frontier’. I will discuss a few points below, namely, legal regulation and the review of the Outer Space Treaty Senator Cruz called for and the ‘China question’.

First, Senator Cruz clearly wants a discussion of legal issues, and called for a thorough review of the Outer Space Treaty, although I got the impression he meant at the national, i.e. US level, and not an international review by all State Parties. However, I think he invited the wrong people for that discussion. Although there were a few legal points raised. George Whitesides, CEO of Galactic Ventures,[1] stressed their desire for a permanent extension of the indemnification currently offered to the commercial spaceflight industry. He also indicated that he was concerned about regulation of ‘hybrid’ vehicles, which makes sense as SpaceShipTwo is both an aircraft and space object. Andrew Rush, CEO of Made in Space, expressed concern about intellectual property rights in space. Another common theme was concern about ‘uncompetitive’ practices in foreign markets and American companies being restricted from doing business there, which seems ironic given the uber-protectionism of American law found in things like ITAR. Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, was the only one who really engaged with Senator Cruz on the Outer Space Treaty, but doesn’t really have much of a problem with the Outer Space Treaty, not only recognizing the difficulty of ‘updating’ it but also that he doesn’t see the OST as prohibiting free enterprise, in fact he said that free enterprise is consistent with serving humanity. I would broadly speaking agree, there isn’t anything in the OST that prohibits or prevents commercial space activities, in fact commercial space activities have flourished under the existing space law regime. And the space treaties provide the stability and order that industry claims they want and need. For my thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the Outer Space Treaty in its fiftieth year please see my earlier post.

Robert Bigelow and Senator Cruz both seemed to have particular concern about China. There were accusations about the military nature of the Chinese space programme, their desire to build military bases in outer space and their anti-satellite weapons capability. All of which, to a non-American, at least, not only sound a tad paranoid but also more than a little hypocritical from a country which spends more money on defence than next 10 countries combined, 6 of whom are allies[2], and which spends vast sums of money on its own military space programme which includes an anti-satellite capability of its own. I certainly understand that there is legitimate concern about China, but the degree of concern expressed in this hearing in particular, seemed out of place.

Overall it was an interesting hour and a half and I hope it does indeed turn out to be the first in a series, though I think if Senator Cruz really does want a discussion about ‘reviewing’ the Outer Space Treaty he might want to think about inviting a few space lawyers next time.


[1]Which I’m assuming is the holding company for Virgin Galactic, Orbit etc, Mr. Whitesides is certainly CEO of Virgin Galactic, but Google is turning up nothing on Galactic Ventures…

[2]Based on figures from the International Institute of Strategic Studies published in 2015, http://www.iiss.org/en

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