Thursday, April 25, 2019

New US Bill Asks NASA to Encourage Space Mining and Assess the Establishment of a Space Resources Institute

          By Chuck Black

A proposed new bill introduced into the US House of Representatives by Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colorado) is calling for the US to encourage space mining activities and for NASA to assess the usefulness of establishing a space resources institute.

But the bill is beginning to raise "off-the-record" eyebrows in Canada among space mining advocates who feel the US legislation could create barriers for international cooperation and damage the potential for making any sort of private sector profit from space based resources.

The legislation, known as the Space Resources Institute Act (H.R.1029) was first presented to the 116th Congress on February 12th, 2019, but languished until referenced by the Washington DC based National Space Society (NSS) in their April 24th, 2019 NSS press release, "National Space Society Endorses the Space Resources Institute Act (H.R. 1029)."

According to the NSS press release:
The National Space Society (NSS) enthusiastically supports the Space Resources Institute Act (H.R. 1029), a bi-partisan bill submitted by Representatives Scott Tipton and Ed Perlmutter. H.R. 1029 directs NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to submit to Congress “a report on the merits of, and options for, establishing an institute relating to space resources, and for other purposes.” NSS looks forward to seeing a similar bill submitted to the Senate. 
NSS has long called for the utilization of space resources to ensure that space exploration, development, and settlement become cost-effective and sustainable. Chair of the NSS Executive Committee Dale Skran stated, “Establishing a space resources institute to investigate potential technologies and techniques for finding, extracting, and utilizing space resources, including water, minerals, and solar energy, would be a rational next step on the way to enabling sustainable space settlement.”
The bill called for  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to submit a report, within the next six months, on the benefits of and options for establishing an institute that would be focused on:
  • Identifying, developing, and distributing space resources, including by encouraging the development of foundational science and technology; and,
  • Reducing the technological risks associated with identifying, developing, and distributing space resources.

The institute could be based in a physical location or established virtually and could also include partnerships with universities and companies representing aerospace and extractive industries.

In essence, it's a bill asking for more research, not action and everyone needs to begin somewhere. However, that could be where some of the real problems with this sort of national legislation could begin, at least for organizations based outside of the US.

For example, NASA already has a mechanism in place dedicated to funding virtual institutes for fundamental research. It's called the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) and supplements existing NASA lunar science programs and could certainly serve as a useful model for the proposed space resources institute.

As outlined on the SSERVI overview, the organization mandate is to bring together multiple entities (academic, industry, government and international) to address significant research issues that cannot be managed by stand alone entities.

But the international, cooperative efforts are all on a "no exchange of funds" basis. To cooperate with the SSERVI, or any similarly structured organization, Canadian and other externally based organizations would be required to share any intellectual property used in a cooperative venture but wouldn't be paid for it.

The only benefit to the contributor would be the chance to participate in program it couldn't create on its own. The US based coordinating organization would gain the IP and would therefore be able to reproduce the venture entirely on its own in the future.

Over time, the knowledge and skill-sets required to fulfill the various missions and mandates would all flow into the US based coordinating organization while the external, participating organizations would slowly lose their ability to organize independent missions.

Eventually, those external organizations would become simple component manufacturers for others, much like the current Canadian Space Agency (CSA) operates in conjunction with NASA.

All of which suggests that there are a great many problems and big gaps in the knowledge of how everything is supposed to work with the new bill, which could be a part of the reason why the bill calls on NASA to "assess" and not "implement."

Both of the US sponsors of the space mining institute legislation represent Colorado, where the Golden CO based Colorado School of Mines Space Resources Program as been a leading institution for the study of space resources and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) since the 1990's.

It's perfectly sensible for the sponsors represent their own constituents but other nations and organizations should look out for their own self-interests.

Maybe the real trick for Canada is to move forward with independent, domestically focused legislation designed to assist our own industries instead of waiting for some other nation to get the ball rolling and then react to the new state of affairs.

Canada could lead, instead of follow.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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