Nelson Seeks Swift Compromise on Commercial Launch Bill

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WASHINGTON — As Congress reconvenes after its summer recess, a leading member of the Senate Commerce Committee says he will seek to swiftly hammer out a compromise between versions of a commercial launch bill passed by the House and Senate.

In comments after an event at the Kennedy Space Center Sept. 4, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the full committee, said he hopes that a House-Senate conference committee can work out differences between the two bills by the end of the calendar year.

“I’ve already talked with the chairman in the House to try and get that going, and get it going fast,” he said, referring to House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). House Science Committee spokeswoman Laura Crist confirmed Sept. 8 there is “ongoing discussion” about the bills.

The Senate passed its bill, S. 1297, by unanimous consent Aug. 4, while the House passed H.R. 2262 on a 284–133 vote in May. Both bills extend the so-called “learning period” that limits the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate the safety of participants of commercial space vehicles. They also extend the commercial launch indemnification regime, where the government is responsible for any third-party losses from launches in excess of a level the company must insure against.

However, the Senate bill extends both the learning period and the launch indemnification regime through 2020, while the House bill extends both through 2025. The House bill includes several sections on space resource property rights, commercial remote sensing and revamping the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commercialization not found in the Senate bill. The Senate bill authorizes the extension of the International Space Station through 2024, a provision not included in the House bill.

Nelson did not discuss what he expected the compromise legislation to contain, but did hope it would be done quickly. “It would be nice if we could get it done this month, but there are so many other things that may crowd it out,” he said. “But, certainly before we adjourn at the end of the year.”

One factor that provides some urgency to the effort to reconcile the bills is that the learning period expires Oct. 1. However, FAA officials have stated in recent months that they do not have immediate plans to enact regulations should the learning period expire, and that they expect Congress to ultimately agree to some kind of extension.

“Right now, the moratorium is scheduled to expire at the end of this month,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, during a panel session at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2015 conference Sept. 2 in Pasadena, California. “But I think there’s a really good chance it will end up being extended.”