SpaceShipTwo test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — A final version of a commercial space launch bill that has won praise from industry has stalled in the Senate because of concerns about some of its provisions.

A House and Senate conference committee concluded work Oct. 28 reconciling differences between versions of commercial space bills they passed earlier this year. The final bill extends some aspects of current space transportation law, including government indemnification of third-party damages and restrictions on regulations of spaceflight participant safety, and includes new language about space resource rights.

“It looks like there has been a resolution between the House and Senate on a commercial space bill,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in an Oct. 28 speech on the Senate floor, laying the groundwork for the expedited passage of the bill there. “This legislation should be cleared later on tonight and in the morning by both sides.”

However, sources familiar with the status of the bill said that one or more senators placed a hold on the bill Oct. 29, preventing the bill from moving forward there. No senators have publicly announced that they have blocked consideration of the bill, and spokespersons from several Senate offices did not respond to requests for comment about the bill Nov. 3.

At issue, according to sources, are some provisions in the bill dealing with liability. That includes one section that gives federal, rather than state, courts jurisdiction over any cases that arise from a licensed commercial launch. Another section adds spaceflight participants to cross-waivers of liability already required for other customers of commercial launches.

Some Democratic members of the House Science Committee opposed those provisions when the committee marked up a version of the bill in May. “This really is quite an indefensible provision,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) during discussion then regarding the federal jurisdiction clause of the House bill, arguing that the bill is “basically providing the launch industry with complete immunity from any civil action.”

The American Association for Justice, a legal organization formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, also spoke out against those sections of the bill in May. “Industries that lobby for immunity from accountability might as well hang up a sign saying they don’t trust themselves to be safe,” Linda Lipsen, chief executive of the association, said in a May 13 statement.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry organization that has supported the bill, urged Congress to pass the final version. “This new legislation sets the stage for the continued growth and expansion of this industry, while enabling rapid advances in safety,” the organization said in an Oct. 29 statement.

Others in the industry also support the final version of the bill. “I think we’re on the right path,” said Steve Avila, senior corporate counsel of The Spaceship Company, a Virgin Galactic subsidiary, at a panel about the bill held here Oct. 29 by the University of Nebraska College of Law. He specifically mentioned the cross-waiver language in the bill. “This is a good direction.”

Another aspect of the bill, which gives companies rights to resources they extract from asteroids or other celestial bodies, also won support. The bill “creates a whole new level of certainty not only for us, but for the entire commercial space industry,” said Peter Marquez, vice president for global engagement for Planetary Resources Inc., a company with long-term plans to extract resources from near Earth asteroids.

Marquez said his company, among others, believed there is an “inferred right” to resources taken from asteroids, but that right had not been made explicit in law prior to the current bill. “This will give us a tremendous level of certainty that will unlock a vast amount of investment resources and also give us certainty about what we can do in the future,” he said.

However, others at the panel warned that the bill, as favorable as it may be to the industry, was not yet law. “The greatest risk is celebrating before we’re in the end zone,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.

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...