HAMBURG, Germany — The House Science Committee deferred a vote on a commercial space bill until after Thanksgiving amid opposition from committee Democrats about its provisions.
The committee met Nov. 15 to mark up the Commercial Space Act of 2023 and one other bill. At the end of the markup, lasting more than three and a half hours including a recess, the committee’s chairman, Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said the committee would delay votes to advance both bills until after the Thanksgiving break because of votes on the House floor and “and the nature of additional information that has become available to us.”
The latter comment appeared to be a reference to a legislative proposal released by the White House’s National Space Council less than an hour before the markup regarding a mission authorization concept for new space activities. That proposal would establish a system where both the Commerce Department and the Transportation Department would oversee activities not regulated today, based on the type of activity.
The House bill, introduced Nov. 2 by Lucas and space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), would create its own mission authorization system at the Commerce Department. It would also direct Commerce to hand over responsibility for a civil space traffic coordination system to a consortium led by an academic or nonprofit organization, rather than keeping it within the Office of Space Commerce as currently planned.
Lucas, in his opening remarks, said he was aware of the new White House proposal but has reservations about it. “These proposals, I fear, simply go in the wrong direction and hurt rather than support America’s space industry,” he said.
He argued that the legislative proposal was a “needless expansion of government authority” through a new series of licenses and regulation, rather than a “one-stop shop” at Commerce. He also criticized the proposal for not extending the “learning period” that limits the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate commercial human spaceflight participant safety. That learning period is set to expire at the end of the year.
The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), said the committee should wait to review the White House proposal before advancing the current bill. “The Space Council proposal may or may not be the vehicle we want to move forward,” she said. “I think ignoring their work would be a mistake.”
She said later in the markup she also had issues with provisions of the House bill. She said the certification process in the bill would limit interagency reviews of license applications, including national security issues. She also opposed the bill’s apparent effort to “undo” the Commerce Department’s work on space traffic coordination and limit the use of non-binding agreements for norms and rules of behavior in space.
The committee did adopt several amendments that did not change major elements of the bill but in some cases added new provisions. That included reports on space-based solar power and space traffic coordination and a “sense of Congress” section calling on the FAA and Defense Department to establish a single process for supporting commercial launches at federal ranges.
The committee also passed an amendment that would create a more streamlined launch licensing process at the FAA. Lofgren, though, expressed reservations about the amendment, including a lack of feedback from the FAA on the proposal and concerns that fees collected for an expedited review might not stay within the FAA’s commercial space office.