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House Committee on Natural Resources Hearing: The Mineral Supply Chain and the New Space Race

U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources

Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee

“The Mineral Supply Chain and the New Space Race”

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Watch the Hearing

Introduction

The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources’ (CNR) Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing entitled “The Mineral Supply Chain and the New Space Race” on Tuesday, December 12, 2023. The hearing included witnesses representing the commercial space sector and academia, who argued for a proactive space development strategy in response to great power competition. Witness testimonies centered on the increased involvement of nongovernmental actors in the space sector, such as private enterprise, academia, and other stakeholders, as well as the need for greater support of research and development in innovative technologies that have both terrestrial and space functionality. The hearing also addressed China’s long-term space strategy and the international classification of space. More information.

Key Highlights

  • The witnesses emphasized that long-term economic strategy for great space powers hinges on space development and securing the celestial mineral supply chain, predicting potential great power competition in these domains as technological capacities progress.
  • The witnesses generally supported funding research and development for dual-use mining technologies, engaging with the private industry, and taking swift action to outpace China’s strategic development to allow the U.S. to gain a strategic advantage in the space domain.
  • Lawmakers engaged in a debate regarding the jurisdiction authority of the Committee oversight and supervision of matters related to mining activities on celestial bodies.

Witnesses

  • Mr. Eric Sundby, Co-Founder & CEO of TerraSpace, Executive Director of the Space Force Association (SFA)
  • Dr. Greg Autry, Director and Clinical Professor, Space Leadership, Policy, and Business, Thunderbird School of Global Management, Arizona State University (ASU)
  • Dr. Moses P. Milazzo, Owner of Other Orb, Chief Scientist for NASA’s Planetary Data Ecosystem
  • Ms. Michelle Hanlon, Executive Director, Center for Air and Space Law, The University of Mississippi School of Law

Opening Statements

Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar (R-AZ) 

In his opening statement, Chairman Gosar emphasized the emergence of a new space race between China, Russia, and the U.S. to establish a sustained presence in space and harness celestial resources. He stressed the need for the U.S. to take “steps to ensure the celestial mineral supply chain,” which includes overcoming obstacles like “transportation costs, logistical and technological hurdles, and the inherent uncertainty of space activity.” Chairman Gosar reinforced the significance of mining celestial bodies, arguing that it “will provide benefits for those that control it, and [will be] disastrous for those who ignore it.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Melanie Stansbury (D-NM) 

In her opening statement, Ranking Member Stansbury stressed that securing the mineral supply chain is a crucial national security issue, urging regulators to remain realistic about current scientific and technological capacities. She asserted that space mining is not an immediate prospect and underscored the importance of addressing ethical, moral, and legal considerations before taking any action.

Witness Testimony

Mr. Eric Sundby, Co-Founder & CEO of TerraSpace, Executive Director of the SFA

In his testimony, Mr. Sundby argued that space presents clear economic and strategic opportunities for the U.S., and a new era in space will be defined by the development and utilization of celestial resources. He highlighted that other superpowers are strategically developing their long-term space strategies, referencing the China-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) as an example. Reinforcing the economic incentives for U.S. space development, Mr. Sundby stated that many minerals found in space can bolster the terrestrial economy. He underscored the role of private enterprise in space and encouraged decision-makers to “lower entry barriers for new technologies,” recommending potential incentives such as Small Business Innovation Research (SPIR) grants and grants for the development of dual-use space and terrestrial mining technologies. Read the full testimony.

Dr. Greg Autry, Director and Clinical Professor, Space Leadership, Policy, and Business, Thunderbird School of Global Management, ASU

In his testimony, Dr. Autry highlighted the strategic importance of extraterrestrial resource extraction in China’s space development agenda. He argued that the U.S. could capitalize on new sources of minerals from space, referencing high quantities of metal deposits on the South Pole of the moon and the asteroid Psyche. While U.S. firms are developing capabilities to exploit these resources, Chinese firms are doing the same, leading to a race to develop the technological capacity to overcome space mining challenges. As these technologies have dual-use applications, investments in research and development will enhance American competitiveness in both forms of mining. Dr. Autry warned that delays in current American space resource development could cede leadership in the field to China, impeding future space development for the U.S. Dr. Autry then provided six actionable recommendations:

  1. Provide funding for research and development into dual-use mining technologies that enable both space resource extraction and advanced terrestrial mining.
  2. Support a permanent and sustainable presence on the Moon with our Artemis Accords partners.
  3. Allocate additional funding to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) for the continued exploration of lunar and asteroid resources.
  4. Allocate additional funding to the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) for the development of space power solutions.
  5. Develop follow-up legislation to the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSCLA) of 2015 and work with our Artemis Accords partners to clarify our interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty (OST).
  6. Clearly direct the U.S. Space Force (USSF) to prepare for the future protection of American commerce in cislunar space and on celestial bodies.

Read the full testimony.

Dr. Moses P. Milazzo, Owner of Other Orb, Chief Scientist for NASA’s Planetary Data Ecosystem

In his testimony, Dr. Milazzo advocated for careful consideration of several diverse aspects of future space mining endeavors. Specifically, he called for more attention to resource and energy development, ethical scrutiny of public investment and returns, and ethical considerations of environmental and human burdens arising from mining activities. Emphasizing the significance of dual-use technologies in space development, Dr. Milazzo highlighted the role of public funding in supporting research and development, with an emphasis on equitable allocation and support for small business development. Due to the impact that space mining will have on the global community, he called for the inclusion of anticolonialism as a central tenet of the regulation of the space mining industry. As part of this initiative, Dr. Milazzo urged the development of codified international protections for “historical and cultural treasures” in space. Furthermore, he advocated for the formation of a diverse committee of experts to address questions of “whether, and if so, how, to encourage, regulate, and fund U.S. mining in space.” Read the full testimony.

Ms. Michelle Hanlon, Executive Director, Center for Air and Space Law, The University of Mississippi School of Law

In her testimony, Ms. Hanlon contended that the stakes of the new space race are higher than the first. Rather than centering around prestige, the current space race revolves around “access to resources that can benefit all of humanity, and creating a governance framework that will support all future space activities.” She warned that the current characterization of space and the OST regime leave significant gray areas, which create a first-mover advantage for space development. Ms. Hanlon maintained that terrestrial experience should inform rather than constrain the management and use of space. Additionally, while acknowledging that the OST imposes limits on space activities, she notes that the treaty leaves several factors open for consideration, including resource extraction, which is enshrined in U.S. law and in the Artemis Accords. Finally, Ms. Hanlon reasserted that a tremendous advantage goes to those that establish a presence first, as the entity that arrives first and establishes a safety zone can limit other’s use. According to Ms. Hanlon, “winning requires only getting there first,” even a crash at a mineral rich area might create a 20 kilometer “safety zone” excluding others’ access. Lastly, Ms. Hanlon emphasized that the term ‘due regard’ must be better defined in space agreements. Read the full testimony.

Question & Answer 

Investment in Dual-Use Mining Technologies

  • In response to questions from several lawmakers, Dr. Autry emphasized that reasonable investments in research and development can significantly facilitate the development of dual-use mining technologies, providing the U.S. with a bifurcated advantage in mineral supply chain development. He suggested that academia can help rectify social and moral issues associated with space mining while ensuring timely progress. Dr. Autry also expressed that utilizing public funds for the development of dual-use technologies would have broader benefits for life on Earth, noting that funds would have a more significant impact as space costs are decreasing, thanks to the ‘entrepreneurial revolution’ in the space economy. Ms. Hanlon reinforced the idea that technologies developed for space mining can be leveraged to benefit life on Earth.

China

  • Several lawmakers directed questions to the witnesses concerning China. In response to a question from Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT), Dr. Autry advocated for the aggressive development of U.S. resources to counter China’s expanding space capabilities. In response to a question from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), Mr. Sundby highlighted that the Chinese military holds significant control over the country’s space program, with minimal civil representation. Consequently, institutions like the ILRS are expected to be staffed predominately by military personnel.

Access to Rare Materials

  • In response to questions from multiple lawmakers, both Dr. Milazzo and Dr. Autry affirmed that most strategic or rare Earth materials can also be found in space and are likely to be concentrated on celestial bodies. However, Dr. Milazzo expressed his belief that it will likely take decades for companies to extract valuable amounts of space materials for use, disagreeing with some companies’ estimates of a turnaround within a couple of years. He further stated that profitability with an actionable timeframe is unlikely without support from public funding due to the insufficient return on investment. In this regard, Dr. Milazzo advocated for bipartisanship in establishing a functional standard for both terrestrial and space mining.

Outer Space Treaty

  • In response to Chairman Gosar, Ms. Hanlon explained the OST lacks enforcement provisions, relying on the concept of due regard for adherence.

An archive of previous hearing coverage is available here.