House Science Committee To Take Up NASA and Commercial Launch Bills

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WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee plans to take up a NASA authorization bill once again in February, followed later in the year by an update to commercial launch law, the chairman of the committee’s space subcommittee said Feb. 4.

In a speech at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference here, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) said his committee would move quickly on a NASA authorization bill. “It is my hope that we can begin the process by taking up a NASA authorization later this month,” he said.

Palazzo did not go into details about the bill’s contents, but suggested it would not be significantly different from the bill the committee passed last year. The full House passed that bill on a 401-2 vote in June, but the legislation died when the Senate failed to pass either that bill or an alternative version.

Palazzo implored the Senate to act this year on a NASA authorization bill. “We can continue to do our work on the House side, but without at least a starting point, we cannot move towards a consensus product for the president’s signature,” he said.

Donna Edwards
“What we really want to do is finally get to a bargaining table where we can reach consensus between the House and the Senate,” Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) said about the NASA authorization bill. Credit: Women’s Policy, Inc.

Speaking at the conference Feb. 5, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the ranking member of the space subcommittee, supported that approach, also asking the Senate to pass a bill that can be reconciled with the House’s version. “What we really want to do is finally get to a bargaining table where we can reach consensus between the House and the Senate,” she said.

After her speech, Edwards said that the new NASA authorization bill the committee will consider will not vary much from last year’s version on policy issues, citing the work she and Palazzo did to develop that earlier bill.

In addition to a NASA authorization bill, Palazzo said the committee will take up later in the year an update to the Commercial Space Launch Act. “There are several areas we will examine closely that have been neglected for some time,” he said.

Two of those areas, Palazzo said, are third-party indemnification of commercial launches and current restrictions on the FAA’s ability to regulate the safety of people flying on commercial spacecraft. “We need to stop kicking the can down the road and work to find long-term solutions to these challenges,” he said. “These two issues have been surviving with Band-Aids and temporary fixes for years.”

Palazzo suggested that he would be open to extending the current restriction on safety regulations, sometimes called by industry a “learning period,” which is set to expire in October. “The FAA still has no data for regulations and the commercial space launch industry is still working hard to get off the ground,” he said.

FAA officials, though, indicated a desire to allow the learning period to expire and work with industry on a new regulatory framework. “My perspective is that we have 50 years of history” in human spaceflight upon which to base future regulations, said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in remarks at the conference Feb. 4.

Nield said it was not FAA’s intent to impose a “burdensome” set of regulations should the learning period expire, but that he wants the ability to establish them if needed. “I frankly like the flexibility of being able to act quickly if and when there’s a need identified for regulations,” he said.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta also supported that approach. “We should not take the attitude that ‘risk happens,’ but adopt the attitude that we will need to address and mitigate risk,” he said in a speech at the conference Feb. 4. He said government and industry needed to work together on safety issues whether or not Congress extends the regulatory learning period.
“What we don’t want to have is some kind of framework that would be imposed upon us in reaction to something that might happen,” he said.