WASHINGTON — U.S. firms aspiring to launch paying passengers into suborbital space and beyond have been given an additional 33 months to start flying before the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is free to set safety rules for spacefarers.

That is because a provision in the massive FAA reauthorization bill the U.S. Congress approved Feb. 6 extends through September 2015 a regulatory grace period for private human space launches that was set to expire at the end of this year. At press time, the bill was awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature.

The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 barred the FAA from imposing passenger and crew safety rules on the likes of Virgin Galactic and other such operators for eight years, unless an operator experiences a serious accident or an especially dangerous close call. And even then, the FAA would be limited to restricting or prohibiting design features or operating practices that resulted in serious or fatal injuries or contributed to the close calls.

One purpose of the partial moratorium was to give the nascent commercial human spaceflight industry the chance to take flight without weighing it down with regulation. Another purpose was to allow operators to establish a base of safety-related best practices that the FAA could then convert into regulations once the moratorium expired.

But the commercial human spaceflight industry has not developed as quickly as many imagined in 2004, when SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by completing two suborbital flights within a week. There have been no crewed suborbital flights since and SpaceShipTwo — the Virgin Galactic follow-on vehicle closest to entering service — is not expected to make its first powered flight until later this year.

“When Congress first wrote the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act [of 2004], it was anticipated that vehicles could be flying almost immediately,” James Muncy, a space consultant who lobbied on behalf of the legislation, said. “The goal was to get a healthy amount of data from actual flight operations so that we could learn what’s safe and what’s not safe.

“None of that happened. It would be good if we could have a gradual period of transition, and that’s what I think a lot of us are trying to figure out: how we work with [FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation] to help them come up with a gradual sort of onramp so that there can be increasing regulation in a gradual fashion, rather than all or nothing.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation hailed the passage of the FAA reauthorization bill.

The reauthorization bill allows “the FAA to continue a wide range of regulatory activities and to act as a conduit for industry cooperation, while still enabling innovation and entrepreneurship,” Eric Anderson, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s chairman, said in a statement. Anderson is also chairman and chief executive of Space Adventures, the Vienna, Va.-based company that brokered Dennis Tito’s landmark $20 million trip in 2001 to the international space station.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, whose Southern California congressional district includes NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Air and Space Port, took credit for adding the extension to the reauthorization bill.

“The commercial spaceflight industry is already having a profound impact right in our backyard, and this action ensures that it can keep on innovating and creating jobs,” McCarthy said in a statement.

His spokeswoman, Andrea McCarthy (no relation), credited the congressman for inserting the provision in the final FAA reauthorization bill.

The House originally backed a longer extension — eight years from the time of the first FAA-licensed flight — but ultimately went along with the shorter extension.

The House approved the compromise FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (H.R. 658) by a vote of 248-169 on Feb. 3. The Senate followed suit on Feb. 6, voting 75-20 to send the bill the president to be signed into law.

Among the companies backing the extension, Virgin Galactic, the company founded in 2004 by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, appears the best positioned to be the first to launch paying passengers on a suborbital jaunt. Virgin has repeatedly delayed the start of commercial operations, which Branson originally predicted would begin in 2007. Despite the lack of a launch date, Virgin Galactic said in November it had accrued $58 million in deposits from 455 passengers.

The company “has been talking about ramping up to commercial operations early next year,” spokesman Jeff Carr told Space News Feb. 8. The craft’s first powered flight to the edge of space — which would not carry any paying customers — would take place by the end of this year, Carr said. SpaceShipTwo last flew in September, in an unpowered glide-to-landing drop from its carrier ship, WhiteKnightTwo.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.