House To Consider Commercial Space Legislation, Including Launch Bill

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WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee plans to take up four commercial space bills May 13, including legislation to extend key provisions of commercial launch law and to provide property rights to companies carrying out asteroid mining.

The lineup of bills the committee plans to consider in its markup session is headlined by the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship, or SPACE, Act, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), along with committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and space subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.)

The SPACE Act’s most controversial provision would extend the existing restrictions on the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to impose commercial human spaceflight safety regulations. That restriction, widely known as the “learning period,” is set to expire Oct. 1, but would be extended to the end of 2023 by the bill.

Industry has lobbied in recent years for an extension of the learning period, citing the need for vehicle developers to build up flight experience upon which to base regulations. FAA officials have argued against an extension, while also saying that have no immediate plans to impose safety regulations should the period expire.

The bill would require a number of studies during that eight-year extension on the development of voluntary consensus standards by the commercial spaceflight industry as well as an independent review by the end of 2021 to determine the readiness of both industry and the government “to transition to a safety framework that may include regulation.”

That language is more far-reaching than a draft commercial launch bill in the Senate. That bill extends the learning period by five years, and does not include the same requirement for an independent review that the House bill does.

The SPACE Act also extends the indemnification regime for commercial launches, where the government is responsible for third-party damages above a level companies must insure against, from the end of 2016 to the end of 2023. The Senate bill would extend indemnification through 2020.

The House and Senate bills do have some similar provisions. Both would allow companies to hold an experimental permit and launch license for the same vehicle simultaneously, flying the vehicle under a permit for test flights and under a license for commercial missions.  Both bills also define a new class of individuals flying on commercial vehicles, called “government astronauts,” who would be treated differently under the law than commercial spaceflight participants or crew.

The legislation already has support from industry. “The bill assures support for the adventurers and astronauts who intend to enjoy the experiences of spaceflight while allowing the industry to mature through a safe and thoughtful regulatory approach,” wrote Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson in a May 11 letter to the committee.

Also on the committee’s agenda is the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, introduced in March by Reps. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) The bill is an updated version of a bill regarding property rights for asteroid resources that the two members introduced last year but died in committee.

As with the earlier bill, the new act declares that resources harvested from asteroids by a company is the property of that company, and that companies should refrain from causing harmful interference. The updated version specifies that, should two companies under U.S. jurisdiction enter a dispute over access to asteroid resources, the company “first in time to conduct the activity” would win the case provided its actions were reasonable.

Another bill, the Commercial Remote Sensing Act of 2015 by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), requires the Secretary of Commerce to provide annual reports on the number of commercial remote sensing license applications received and approved. The bill also requires a report on any necessary updates to existing law.

The fourth bill, the Office of Space Commerce Act by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), would rename the existing Office of Space Commercialization within the Department of Commerce the Office of Space Commerce. The bill also gives the office formal responsibility to support an interagency office on space-based positioning, navigation, and timing, a role the office is already carrying out.