Commercial space bill clears Senate committee

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WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill Aug. 1 that would streamline commercial launch and remote sensing regulations but also includes language conflicting with a House bill.

The committee favorably reported S. 3277, the Space Frontier Act of 2018, on a voice vote without any members speaking out against it. The bill was one of seven the committee approved, along with one nomination, during a markup session that lasted less than 15 minutes.

The bill, introduced July 25 by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) with Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), is primarily focused on reforming commercial launch and remote sensing regulations, in line with efforts by the Trump administration through Space Policy Directive 2 signed in May.

“While the commercial space industry is continuing to grow, it is unable to meet its full potential due to outdated regulations and policies that can stifle innovation, restrict investment and drive the American launch sector and non-traditional space activities to foreign countries,” Cruz said in a statement at the markup after the committee voted in favor of the bill.

Cruz offered, and the committee approved, an updated version of the bill that makes minor changes to what was introduced. Among them are new sections that set a deadline of 90 days for the Department of Transportation to issue a new launch license to a company that already holds one, versus the 180-day deadline currently used for all applications. The updated version also adds language on the section for remote sensing reform elevating any disagreement during an interagency review of a license application to the president.

The revised version leaves in place a section that gives the Department of Transportation, though the Federal Aviation Administration, the ability to use the payload review portion of the launch licensing process to authorize non-traditional space activities that are not overseen by other agencies. This clashes with the House’s American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which gives the authority to authorize and supervise such activities to the Commerce Department.

The bill also retains a section that authorizes an extension of the International Space Station from 2024 to 2030. That extension, Cruz said, is intended “to ensure that the Unites States is getting the maximum return on American taxpayer investment in the ISS, and to avoid creating a leadership vacuum in low Earth orbit.”

The committee approved two other amendments to the bill. One, by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), directs the Department of Transportation to perform a study on the joint use of military facilities for both government and commercial launches, including the “feasibility of increasing the number of military installations” that could host commercial launches and reentries.

The second, by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), calls on the U.S. government to develop “consistent standards across Federal agencies” to minimize the risks posed by orbital debris. Peters, in a statement at the markup session, called the amendment a “start” towards dealing with orbital debris, “but still much more needs to be done.”

The bill now goes on to the full Senate. “I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues to ensure that we pass this bill in the Senate and send it to President Trump’s desk before the end of this Congress,” Cruz said. That would require not just passing the bill but also either getting it through the House or reconciling it with the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, all before the end of the year.

At the markup, senators hailed the bipartisan nature of the bill that eased is passage through the committee. “I’m happy to join with Sens. Cruz and Markey in carrying on our tradition of bipartisan space legislation,” Nelson said.