Congress Could Privatize Asteroids, Because There Isn't Anything Else To Do

WASHINGTON -- An awful lot of important issues are not likely to get a vote from House Republicans in the final two-week congressional session before the November elections. If all goes well, Congress will declare victory over the term by passing a bill to avoid a government shutdown. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) won't bring a comprehensive immigration bill to the floor or allow a vote on raising the minimum wage. There will be no legislation to aid the 3 million Americans struggling with long-term unemployment, and nothing to deal with the predatory practices pervading the $1 trillion student loan industry.

But at least one Republican, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, isn't taking the leadership's do-nothing agenda sitting down. On Wednesday, Smith intends to dedicate an entire hearing to the privatization of asteroids via a new property rights regime for deep space.

The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), takes a first-come, first-served attitude to asteroid mining.

"Any resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto," the bill reads. "Any assertion of superior right to execute specific commercial asteroid resource utilization activities in outer space shall prevail if it has found to be first in time, derived upon a reasonable basis, and in accordance with all existing international obligations of the United States."

In other words, finders, keepers. The bill seems to suggest that whoever is first to land on a specific asteroid gets all the stuff. But that last clause could be a doozie.

Science publications and blogs have focused on the question of whether the bill would be compatible with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars nations from claiming extraterrestrial land as sovereign territory. The treaty does not explicitly reference "private" or "commercial" property rights, but is widely viewed as restricting private exploitation under the domestic laws of one nation.

The bill also doesn't present any barriers to mining efforts that might harm or impair other scientific causes or public interests.

Asteroids are rich with metals and other raw materials. The Earth's supply of many metals, in fact, is the result of ancient asteroid bombardments.

But targeting the appropriate asteroids and financing effective expeditions is a very expensive endeavor with an extremely long time-horizon. (Not to mention that extraterrestrial mining expeditions often go awry in science-fiction plots.)

A few companies funded by very wealthy science-fiction aficionados are currently in the early stages of developing asteroid mining capabilities, the most notable being Washington-based Planetary Resources, which is backed by Virgin Group billionaire Richard Branson, Google titans Larry Page and Eric Schmidt Jr., Ross Perot Jr. and "Avatar" director James Cameron. Virginia-based Deep Space Industries is also eyeing the speculative gold-rush.

No critical, must-pass legislation comes out of the Science Committee, making it a useful landing spot for backbenchers and cranks. The current Science Committee majority boasts Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who spent much of the summer warning about a "war on whites," alongside Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), who does not believe in climate change and once debuted a bumper sticker that read "If Babies Had Guns They Wouldn't Be Aborted." And then there's Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who once referred to evolution and the Big Bang as "lies from the pit of hell." He also believes the Earth is only "about 9,000 years old."

Smith's major legislative accomplishment to date is the introduction (and subsequent failure) of the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill granting intellectual property rights so expansive that it threatened to break the Internet in the name of higher profits for movie studios and major record labels.

The hearing begins Wednesday at 10:00 a.m.

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