WASHINGTON — Two bills recently introduced into the Senate would reform regulation of commercial space activities, including putting into motion an eventual end of the “learning period” limiting human spaceflight safety rules.

The Commercial Standards Paramount to Accelerating Cosmic Exploration (SPACE) Leadership Act was introduced March 22 by Sens. Krysten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee.

The bill would extend the learning period, which restricts the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) to enact regulations for the safety of occupants on commercial spacecraft, by five years. That learning period, put into place in late 2004, was originally set to last eight years but has been extended several times, and currently runs to early May.

However, the bill would also instruct industry to develop voluntary industry consensus standards for occupant safety during that period. That effort would support an aerospace rulemaking committee, or SpARC, set up by the FAA, to guide the development of regulations to be enacted after the learning period expires.

“By allowing private companies the leeway to drive and provide input on future commercial human space flight regulations, we are facilitating a new era that maintains and improves our competitiveness in space,” Schmitt said in a statement. “Continuing the ‘light touch’ approach provided by the learning period and creating new areas for industry to provide input is crucial to supporting the commercial space sector and our nation’s larger space endeavors.”

Industry officials, including those involved in commercial human spaceflight, said they supported the bill. “This bill’s emphasis on sustained collaboration will ensure that the Office of Commercial Space Transportation benefits from the experience gained by human spaceflight providers,” said Megan Mitchell, vice president of government relations at Blue Origin, in a statement. “An extended learning period will enable us to build on our strong foundations of safety and innovation as the industry continues to grow.”

“SpaceX supports this bill, particularly its focus on efficient licensing modernization to keep pace with commercial innovation and the industry’s demonstrated commitment to safety,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX.

That is a reference to a provision of the bill that keeps the FAA from issuing regulations until it has demonstrated it has approved or denied all license applications within deadlines set in law over a two-year period. At a hearing by the Senate subcommittee in October, Gerstenmaier warned that the licensing process was approaching a “breaking point” as the FAA struggled to keep up with SpaceX and other companies.

A second bill introduced three days earlier also addresses commercial launch licensing. The Licensing Aerospace Units to New Commercial Heights (LAUNCH) Act was introduced by several senators, including Sinema as well as Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.)

The bill directs the FAA to streamline the commercial launch licensing process by incorporating industry input. It also makes a similar requirement of the Office of Space Commerce, which handles commercial remote sensing licensing. Both offices would be directed to provide assistance to license applicants under the bill.

“Our bipartisan bill cuts red tape to improve commercial space launches and remove barriers in the licensing process,” Sinema said in a statement.

The FAA is already moving to address industry concerns about a new set of launch and reentry license regulations, called Part 450, that were enacted in 2021 to streamline the process. Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, announced at a conference Feb. 21 that the FAA would establish a SpARC later this year to study how to improve Part 450.

“We knew there would be some initial learning and we would need to come back to the drawing board,” Coleman said of the effort at the Space Capitol III event by Payload March 18. “This will give us an opportunity to do that.” He said the SpARC should be established by this fall.

House bills

The House is taking a different approach to an extension of the learning period. The Commercial Space Act of 2023 included a provision extending the learning period to October 2031, without language about setting up a SpARC or other preparatory work towards eventually creating commercial human spaceflight occupant safety regulations.

The bill, which also creates a mission authorization system for novel space activities to be handled by the Office of Space Commerce, was favorably reported by the committee on a party-line vote in November. That mission authorization approach is different from one released by the White House, also in November, that would split mission authorization responsibilities between the FAA and Office of Space Commerce. The Senate has yet to introduce a bill on mission authorization.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House Science Committee and a sponsor of the bill, said at the Space Capitol III event that industry stakeholders “almost overwhelmingly” favor the mission authorization approach in his bill. “Whether we can get time on the floor in this hectic summer,” he said, “or motivate the other body, remains to be seen, but it is one of the high-priority issues of the committee.”

Another priority, he said, is a NASA authorization bill. There has not been a standalone NASA authorization bill enacted since 2017, although an authorization was included in the CHIPS and Science Act in 2022. “To go seven years without guidance is an incredible amount of time in the world we live in. That is, in essence, an eternity.”

He didn’t go into details about what he sought to include in the bill but argued that passage will require bipartisan cooperation with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), ranking member of the committee, to use suspension of the rules. That allows expedited consideration of bills on the House floor but also requires approval by two-thirds of members rather than a simple majority.

“We’ll pass our legislation on the suspension calendar,” he said. “Can it be done on NASA? I think it’s possible. Can it be done on commercial space? Well, you’ll find out how good a chairman I am and how good of a ranking member by dear friend from California, Ms. Lofgren, is.”

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...