Op-ed | Congress Can Help the Commercial Launch Industry This Week if We’re All Willing To Work Together

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On May 12 the Republican majority in the U.S. House introduced the SPACE (Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship) Act of 2015, H.R. 2262, to amend the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA). The original CSLA is and should be considered one of the seminal achievements of Congress. That legislative achievement opened the doors to the establishment of the now flourishing U.S. commercial space launch industry.

I think members on both sides of the aisle strongly support this industry, and under better circumstances I would have liked to have been able to support a commercial space bill that updates the CSLA. Unfortunately, I and other Democratic members have had to oppose H.R. 2262.

The issues being dealt with in this bill are not straightforward. They are complex and require thoughtful consideration. With so much interest in the commercial space industry from the private sector, the federal government and interested stakeholders abroad, it seems only reasonable that we take the proper steps to understand the ramifications of policy decisions before solidifying them into law.

This is not an esoteric legal debate. Launching rockets into space is inherently dangerous. Despite our best efforts, and over 50 years of technology development, accidents still occur. Just last year the U.S. commercial launch industry suffered two serious accidents, one of which resulted in a very unfortunate death. I cannot support a commercial space bill that minimizes the issue of safety, like H.R. 2262 does.

However, we don’t need to be at an impasse. Both Democratic and Republican members want to see this industry succeed, and we have an opportunity this week to do so while still ensuring the public is protected. The House Rules Committee has made an amendment in the nature of a substitute offered by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) that would replace the text of H.R. 2262 with the bipartisan Senate commercial space bill. I appreciate the majority’s decision to allow the House to debate the Edwards amendment when the bill comes to the floor May 21 so that we will have the opportunity to forge a bipartisan compromise that can actually become law in the coming weeks.

SpaceX groundbreaking in Texas
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (right) joined SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk (center) at the groundbreaking ceremony for the company’s commercial launch site at Boca Chica Beach on the Gulf of Mexico east of Brownsville, Texas. Credit: SpaceNews photo by Jeff Foust

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Bill Nelson (D-Fla), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.), is not the bill I would have written. It is not the bill that the House majority wrote. But it is a bill that advances the legitimate interests of the commercial space launch industry while ensuring that the rights and safety of both the public on the ground and the future passengers of these spacecraft will be protected. It is a bill that I and other Democratic members can support.

So we have both an opportunity and a challenge confronting us this week. We have the opportunity to pass legislation in the House that we already know has bipartisan support in the Senate. We have legislation that can become law if my Republican colleagues will join with House Democrats and the Senate to support this substitute amendment. In addition, we have a challenge — one that our friends in the commercial space industry need to confront. I know that there are some in industry who would prefer to hold out for more than the Senate bill provides to industry, and would prefer to take their chances on a House-Senate conference that may never happen. I think that would be a real mistake.

We have the ability to move bipartisan legislation now that can be enacted into law in the near future. I hope the members of the commercial space industry will recognize the golden, but fleeting, opportunity they have been given, and will support Rep. Edwards’ amendment in the nature of a substitute and urge members of Congress to do the same.

It is the moment of truth. The commercial space industry has to decide if it wants to simply posture, holding out for that last extra bit of advantage, or instead be willing to accept a compromise that advances its interests through legislation that can actually become law.
We can get this done. We can enact sensible commercial space legislation if we are all willing to come together in a spirit of compromise.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) is ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.