House, Senate Versions of Launch Liability Shield Extension Differ in Length

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UPDATED Nov. 22, 1:38 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — A bill that would renew through 2016 a 25-year-old law that limits damages U.S. rocket companies would have to pay following a catastrophic mishap was introduced Nov. 20 by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce space subcommittee.

Nelson’s bill, S.1753, garnered nine cosponsors — including three Republicans — representing states with a heavy aerospace-industry presence. An industry source said the bill was to be put on the fast track for approval by unanimous consent in the Senate. That means the measure could come up for a floor vote in that chamber as soon as Dec. 9, when the Senate returns from its Thanksgiving recess.

Nelson filed his bill the same day House lawmakers announced they would pursue only a one-year renewal of the indemnity shield, which is set to expire Dec. 31.

“We have reached an agreement with the minority to only extend the provision for one year, and take the issue up more thoroughly next year as part of a larger commercial space launch act,” Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Science space subcommittee, said during a Nov. 20 commercial spaceflight hearing. “I hope we can discharge the bill and pass it under suspension of the rules on the House floor very shortly.”

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said she would work with Palazzo “for a clean one-year extension of the commercial launch indemnification provisions.” 

Edwards indicated she would consider a long-term launch indemnity regime only after the subcommittee held hearings with expert witnesses from industry and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, known also as AST. Edwards said those hearings, which could inform a broader commercial space bill, would probably take place “over the next year.”

Under the current indemnity regime, the U.S. government shields commercial rocket operators against damage claims that exceed the insurance coverage AST requires operators to purchase for each launch. So far, no U.S. commercial launch provider has ever required government indemnity.

A two-year extension made it through the House late last year only to die in the Senate. A one-year extension was finally adopted in January.

During the summer, both the House Science and Senate Commerce committees approved NASA authorizations bills that included multiyear extensions but neither bill is expected to make it to the floor before the current legislative session ends next month. 

During Palazzo’s Nov. 20 hearing, Satellite Industries Association President Patricia Cooper told lawmakers an indefinite indemnity extension would please her members. Stuart Witt, chief executive of the Mojave Air and Space Port that has attracted startup space firms with suborbital and orbital aspirations, joined Cooper in the call for a permanent extension.

 

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