SpaceShipTwo test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — A bill passed by Congress Sept. 29 will extend by six months the current restriction on the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to regulate the safety of people flying on commercial spacecraft, as House and Senate members reconcile bills that would provide for a longer extension.

The Senate approved by unanimous consent Sept. 29 H.R. 3614, the Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2015. The House passed the bill on a voice vote one day earlier.

The bill includes a provision extending the current limitation on the FAA’s ability to regulate the safety of people flying on commercial spacecraft. That restriction, often called the “learning period” by industry since it was intended to allow companies to build up experience upon which later regulations could be based, was set to expire Oct. 1, but will now remain in effect until April 1, 2016.

A longer extension of the learning period, sought by companies and industry organizations such as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, is pending negotiations regarding House and Senate versions of broader commercial space bills. A House bill passed in May, H.R. 2262, would extend the learning period through 2025, while a Senate bill passed in August, S. 1297, extends it to October 2020.

Advocates of a longer extension see H.R. 3614 as providing House and Senate negotiators more time to work out a compromise version of their two bills. “This gives the House and Senate committees time to continue their active and productive conference negotiations of H.R. 2262 and S. 1297,” said James Muncy of space policy consulting company PoliSpace.

H.R. 3614 is not the first time Congress has extended the learning period. The restriction was originally set to expire eight years after the enactment of the Commercial Space Launch Amendment Act of 2004, signed into law in December 2004. In February 2012, Congress passed an FAA authorization bill that extended the learning period to Oct. 1, 2015.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...