Senators try new approach to passing commercial space bill

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WASHINGTON — Senators are taking a new approach to winning passage of a commercial space bill, offering it as an amendment to a defense authorization bill.

Several senators, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), introduced an amendment to the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2020 June 13. Cosponsors of the amendment include Sens. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

The amendment would add to the NDAA the text of the Space Frontier Act, introduced by Cruz March 28 and favorably reported by the Senate Commerce Committee April 3. The bill calls for reforms of commercial launch and remote sensing regulations, which are already in progress, extends the authorization of the International Space Station through 2030 and elevates the Office of Space Commerce within the Commerce Department to the Bureau of Space Commerce, led by an assistant secretary.

The Senate Armed Services Committee completed its markup of the NDAA May 23. The full Senate is expected to start consideration of the bill later this week, although it’s not clear when, or if, they will consider this specific amendment.

Cruz’s office did not respond to questions submitted June 14 about why he and his fellow senators sought to include the Space Frontier Act as an amendment to the NDAA, rather than as a standalone bill.

Industry sources, though, say that this approach is intended to help secure passage of the bill not in the Senate but rather in the House. The Senate approved an earlier, similar version of the Space Frontier Act last December. However, the bill failed to win the two-thirds majority needed for passage in the House under suspension of the rules when some members, led by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, raised objections to the bill.

Including the bill in the NDAA, those sources state, could allow it to sidestep a debate whether the bill falls under the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee, which oversees commercial space transportation, or the House Transportation Committee, which oversees aviation but has taken an increasing interest in spaceflight. The Senate version of the NDAA will be reconciled with the House version, drafted by the House Armed Services Committee.

“It was a jurisdictional flap that was going on,” said Bill Nelson, who in his final days in the Senate last December tried to get the Space Frontier Act passed, of that earlier effort. Nelson was speaking May 31 at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, which he recently joined after leaving the Senate. “My apologies from the legislative process.”