COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — U.S. lawmakers are preparing to update the Commercial Space Launch Act for the first time in a decade, congressional staffers said

The 1984 law that created the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to promote and regulate the U.S. launch industry has been updated several times over the last 30 years. The most recent overhaul was in 2004.

Tom Hammond of the House Science Committee and Ann Zulkosky of the Senate Commerce Committee said an update is in the works but did not tip their hands about one of the biggest issues under review on Capitol Hill: whether to allow the FAA to regulate what commercially launched spacecraft can do while they are on orbit.

During a panel discussion May 20 here at the 30th Space Symposium, Hammond said only that the House Science Committee has “evaluated proposals from FAA to seek regulatory authority for on-orbit regulations.”

Neither Hammond nor Zulkosky said when the commercial space bill might appear, although they did say the legislation would address the following:

  • Whether to allow the FAA to begin writing human spaceflight safety regulations after October 2015, when the current regulatory grace period expires.
  • Changes to the formula FAA uses to determine how much insurance commercial launch providers must carry.
  • Unspecified changes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s licensing regime for commercial remote sensing satellites.

George Nield, who runs the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, was also on the May 20 panel and maintained his position that the agency should be allowed to write human spaceflight regulations when the current grace period expires. Some in industry would like to see the grace period extended.

The Senate Commerce Committee, meanwhile, has already approved one small change to U.S. commercial space law. S. 2140, a standalone bill that cleared the committee in April, would increase the utility of the experimental permits used by companies such as suborbital tourism venture Virgin Galactic, which seeks to begin revenue flights this year under an FAA launch license that is pending approval.

The House Science Committee, meanwhile, approved a NASA authorization bill in late April that Hammond said could get a vote on the House floor “within the next few weeks.” The one-year authorization contains numerous policy prescriptions for NASA, but no funding guidelines for appropriators.

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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...