U.S. Bill Supporting Launch Industry, ISS Becomes Law

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WASHINGTON — U.S. commercial launch providers will receive government indemnification against catastrophic damage claims through 2013 and NASA will be allowed to keep trading with Russia for astronaut flights to the space station through 2020 under a bill signed Jan. 14 by U.S. President Barack Obama.

H.R. 6586, which Congress approved Jan. 2 after a frantic amend-and-negotiate process that kept space lobbyists busy during the winter holidays, extends the U.S. government’s commercial launch indemnification regime through Dec. 31. The measure also extends NASA’s existing waiver to space station-related provisions of the Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) from mid-2016 to the end of 2020.

The bill also includes a “Sense of Congress” clause that NASA should develop both the Space Launch System/Orion and commercial crew systems in a balanced manner. This language was introduced by retired Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and her still-serving former colleague, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

Hutchison and Nelson tried and failed to get this language, along with a two-year indemnity extension and a permanent INKSNA fix for NASA, into the defense authorization bill that passed in December. When that fell through, they reintroduced the same language as a standalone bill called the Space Exploration Sustainability Act. At the end of the year, they substituted the text of that proposal for a House-passed launch indemnity bill in an effort to fast-track their preferred language through Congress.

The provisions related to launch indemnification and INKSNA were scaled back in the final version of the bill, industry lobbyists said.