Senate Committee Approves Commercial Space Bill As House Prepares To Vote On Its Own

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WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee swiftly approved a commercial launch bill May 20 as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on a more expansive, and also more controversial, version of the bill later this week.

The Senate Commerce Committee favorably reported S. 1297, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, during a brief markup session May 20 that also included a dozen other bills and three nominations.

The bill, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the chairman of the committee’s space subcommittee, provides an extension through 2020 for both third-party launch indemnification and the “learning period” that limits the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to regulate the safety of people flying on commercial spacecraft.

It also allows suborbital vehicle developers to hold both an experimental permit and launch license for the same vehicle simultaneously, using the permit for test flights and the license for commercial missions. Another section of the bill authorizes the extension of operations of the International Space Station through at least 2024.

The rapid approval of the Senate’s bill stands in contrast to the lengthy debate by the House Science Committee on four commercial space bills May 13, including the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act. The committee approved all four bills, but two of the four, including the SPACE Act, required roll call votes that fell on party lines.

The SPACE Act, like the Senate bill, extends the learning period and launch indemnification, but through 2025 rather than 2020. It also allows companies to hold a permit and license at the same time and, like the Senate bill, defines the term “government astronaut” for NASA and other agencies’ astronauts, who would be treated differently on commercial spacecraft than private individuals.

Since that May 13 markup, the House Rules Committee combined the four bills into one under the SPACE Act name. The other three bills cover property rights for space resources extracted from asteroids, commercial remote sensing licensing, and renaming the Office of Space Commerce the Office of Space Commercialization. That combined bill will be debated on the House floor May 21.

The Rules Committee approved May 19 seven amendments that will be debated with the bill. The amendments range from minor technical corrections to one submitted by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) that would replace the entire bill with the text of S. 1297.

Edwards and other Democratic members of the Science Committee expressed concern in the May 13 markup about the length of the extension of the learning period. The original version of the bill provided an eight-year extension, while Edwards proposed reducing it to five. The committee instead increased the extension to ten years.

In a Statement of Administration Policy issued May 19, the Office of Management and Budget raised an issue with the length of that extension, advocating for “a shorter period than the ten-year extension through 2025 included in the bill.” FAA officials have previously been on the record against any extension of the learning period, while at the same time stating that the agency has no plans to enact regulations should the learning period expire in October, under current law.

That OMB statement also discussed the space resources section of the SPACE Act. While supporting commercial space resource exploitation and utilization in general, the statement notes, “the Administration is concerned about the ability of U.S. companies to move forward with these initiatives absent additional authority to ensure continuing supervision of these initiatives by the U.S. Government as required by the Outer Space Treaty.”

Some commercial space advocates have also raised questions about the space resources section of the bill. In a May 19 letter to members of the House, Berin Szoka, president of technology policy think tank TechFreedom, and James Dunstan, principal of Mobius Legal Group, said the bill could allow companies to make “expansive territorial claims” on asteroids far greater than what other nations would consider acceptable. At the same time, they considered the bill too restrictive since it is limited to resources obtained from asteroids.

While a similar version of that space resources bill was the subject of a hearing last year, the current bill was marked up May 13 without a hearing. “Centuries of common law could be based on this space property rights bill, yet this bill hasn’t even had a hearing,” Szoka said in a May 19 statement. “Space property rights are too important to rush.”