Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). Credit: U.S. Senate Energy Committee

WASHINGTON — Operators of commercial suborbital spacecraft would get more utility out of the experimental permits the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issues for test flights if a bill approved April 8 by the Senate Commerce Committee becomes law.

The legislation, S. 2140, was introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and approved by voice vote. It had not been scheduled for consideration by the full Senate as of April 11. 

The proposal would amend the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act to make clear that experimental permits issued by the Federal Aviation Administration for rocket test flights are not invalidated once the rocket’s operator secures a formal license for commercial flights, according to a press release from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the bill’s four co-sponsors.

The bill would also clarify that an experimental permit issued for a certain vehicle, for example, the SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket New Mexico-based Virgin Galactic plans to use in its suborbital tourism business later this year, applies to all copies of that vehicle.

Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides praised the bill as soon as it cleared its first hurdle in Congress. 

Heinrich’s bill “addresses a technical issue that will help the commercial spaceflight industry develop and deploy reusable space vehicles quickly and safely,” Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff who since 2010 has been running the company Sir Richard Branson founded in 2004, said in Rubio’s press release. 

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation regulates the launch and re-entry of reusable commercial suborbital rockets, of which Virgin Galactic’s passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo is only one example.

Under current U.S. law, FAA issues two kinds of documents for operators of commercial reusable rockets: experimental permits and launch licenses. Right now, permits apply to only one vehicle at a time, and do not allow for revenue-generating flights, such as those Virgin hopes to start flying from New Mexico’s Spaceport America later this year. 

Licenses, which also apply to one vehicle at a time, allow for commercial flights, but wipe out any experimental permit connected with a licensed vehicle. However, licenses do allow for experimental flights, FAA’s top commercial space official has said.

“You can still continue to do testing under a launch license,” George Nield, FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, told members of the House Science space subcommittee during a February hearing.

Virgin has yet to secure its license. The experimental permit under which SpaceShipTwo has flown all its test flights to date is held by Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., which developed SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. 

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...