WASHINGTON, D.C. – Members of Congress spoke to space industry leaders on Capitol Hill last week to show their support for the private sector, but both sides expressed frustrations as well.
At the sixth annual Future Space conference, U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Space, spoke highly of private partnerships in space.
He referred to the promise of asteroid mining twice during his talk, which is good news for Planetary Resources, a space startup based in Redmond, Wash. But Babin also told the gathering of more than 100 space industry professionals that the federal government should be cautious about backing private ventures.
“We must ensure that any public-private partnerships don’t lead to dependence or monopoly,” he said during his opening keynote. He also said that if the government invests in a space venture that’s “not worthy,” it could corrupt the market altogether.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., also said he’s interested in space mining and gave a shout-out to the Evergreen State’s aerospace community. “We are quickly gaining a reputation as the Silicon Valley of space,” he said.
Kilmer was more effusive than Babin about public-private partnerships, but he voiced his own frustrations – about governmental gridlock rather than the private sector.
Although Congress has been generally supportive of giving NASA a bigger budget, progress has stalled in the past due to budget sequestration. “It’s Latin for ‘stupid,’ he joked.
The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, introduced last month, is a step in the right direction, Kilmer said. The legislation would shift most of the federal government’s authority for overseeing commercial space activities from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce.
Kilmer said the act encourages transparent regulation for commercial space companies.
Babin also supports the bill, saying it would help ensure that America has a strong space industry. “I believe strongly that this bill will provide American companies with the certainty that they need to operate in space,” Babin said in a statement.
Space industry representatives also had their say.
Michael López-Alegría is a former NASA astronaut who now serves as director of business development at Axiom Space, a company that wants to build a commercially funded space station. He called on the federal government to “democratize access to space” by retiring the International Space Station and letting private enterprise build the station’s successors in low Earth orbit.
The United States and its international partners have agreed to keep the station in operation until at least 2024.
During a discussion about public-private partnerships for national security, panelists said one reason for the federal government’s reluctance to support private ventures is that space startups aren’t narrowing their focus enough, leading to startup fatigue.
“We need to be clear about where we’re investing, and how commercial is investing,” said Kay Sears, vice president of strategy and business development at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “We can’t have duplicates.”
Russ Matijevich, vice president of strategic development for satellite operator Hawkeye360, said startups sometimes think they can compete broadly, but actually need to “focus on the market they want to capture.” The panelists pointed to SpaceX as a prime example, saying that it’s a launch business, not an all-space business.
Should space startups be concerned about the grumbling? Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, doesn’t think so. He believes the GOP-led Congress has been very supportive of space commercialization.
“I think they’ve been prudent about the way they have been spending their dollars, but I think that investment will continue, especially as they see the benefit of the near-term investment as it starts to pay off,” he told GeekWire.