DSI Dragonfly
A Deep Space Industries concept for a spacecraft that could retrieve space resources from the surface of an asteroid. Credit: Bryan Versteeg / DSI

HOUSTON — The U.S. House of Representatives approved the compromise version of a commercial space bill Nov. 16, but not before a final debate on the House floor about some of the bill’s provisions.

The House passed on a voice vote the amended version of H.R. 2262, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, after about a half-hour of discussion on the House floor that mirrored the debate on the earlier version of the bill that the House passed in May.

“This bill will unite law with innovation, allowing the next generation of pioneers to experiment, learn and succeed without being constrained by premature regulatory action,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), sponsor of the original House bill, said during discussion of the final version.

“Virtually every space stakeholder group supports this bill,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee. “This bill encourages the private sector to launch rockets, take risks and shoot for the stars.”

Opposing the bill were Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the ranking members of the full House Science Committee and its space subcommitte, respectively. They argued against a number of the bill’s provisions, including one that adds spaceflight participants to cross-waivers of liability currently required between launch service providers and its customers.

“The bill that we are considering today is a missed opportunity to enact sensible policies,” said Johnson. “It is a bill that, if enacted, will do harm to American taxpayers and to the long-term interests of the commercial space industry itself.”

“It’s really a question of what the rules of the game are going to be going forward,” said Edwards. However, she said near the end of the debate that she would not oppose the bill, and did not request a roll call vote after the bill’s passage on a voice vote.

The House vote comes after the Senate approved, through unanimous consent, the same bill Nov. 10. The bill is a compromise version of the original House bill and a Senate bill passed in August. With the House’s action, the bill now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Among the bill’s provisions are long-term extensions of the “learning period” that limits the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to enact regulations regarding the safety of spaceflight participants, as well as for government indemnification of third-party damages for commercial launches beyond a level that the launching company must insure against.

Another section of the bill that attracted attention is devoted to space resource rights. The final bill included a version of language in the House bill that grants rights to resources extracted by U.S. companies. The final version covers not just asteroids, as the original House bill did, but the moon and other solar system bodies as well. It is less specific, though, about any recourse a company could take if someone interfered with its rights. It also explicitly states that the bill does not cover any claims of property rights on asteroids or other bodies.

The commercial space industry supported the bill, and applauded its passage. “By removing the regulatory unknowns that suppress and repel investment, this bill unleashes and incentivizes the creativity that leads to unknown breakthroughs in innovation,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“Title IV’s protection of the ownership of recovered space resources will allow the capital markets to take a closer look at the space resource utilization industry, now that we have a legal framework for operations,” said Sagi Kfir, general counsel of asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries, referring to the space resource rights section of the final bill.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also mentioned the bill during remarks Nov. 17 at the SpaceCom Expo, a commercial space conference here. “That was a big milestone accomplished this week in commercial space,” he said of the bill’s passage.

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...