Babin, Lucas Introduce Commercial Space Bill

Babin, Lucas Introduce Commercial Space Bill

The two top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee who oversee space activities introduced a long-awaited bill today addressing commercial space activities. Among the many provisions of the comprehensive legislation, the bill expands the responsibilities of the Office of Space Commerce in the Department of Commerce and extends a moratorium on the FAA promulating new commercial human spaceflight regulations.

The Commercial Space Act of 2023, H.R. 6131, was introduced by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK). Babin chairs the House SS&T Space and Aeronautics subcommittee. Lucas chairs the full committee.

A wide range of commercial space policy issues have been pending for quite some time and this legislation addresses many of them. The committee’s press release hits the highlights.

One of the most pressing issues for years has been assigning some government agency the responsibility to ensure the United States complies with international obligations under the Outer Space Treaty, often referred to as mission authorization. Article VI of the OST requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of non-governmental entities, like companies. Arguments have flown back and forth over whether it should be the Department of Commerce, which already regulates commercial remote sensing satellites, or the Department of Transportation, which oversees commercial space launches and reentries, without resolution.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX)

This bill would give it to the Department of Commerce, specifically the Office of Space Commerce (OSC), currently part of the Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  OSC would be elevated out of NOAA to report directly to the Office of the Secretary of Commerce where it was originally established by the Secretary of Commerce in 1988.

Non-governmental U.S. entities would have to be certified through the Department of Commerce to operate space objects. Among the requirements is that the entity would have to submit a space debris mitigation plan and notify the Secretary before starting and after ending the disposal phase.

OSC already is developing a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) system for civil and commercial satellite operators to keep track of satellites and orbital debris. The legislation directs OSC to award a cooperative agreement with an “eligible entity” to establish a consortium to provide SSA data, information and services to users and prohibits the Secretary “from promulgating regulations for space situational awareness or space traffic management.”

Space debris is a growing concern and the legislation directs NASA “to develop and acquire technologies that reduce the risks associated with orbital debris.” It authorizes NASA to award a 10-year cooperative agreement with an eligible entity to establish a Space Situational Awareness Institute to conduct related research and development and demonstration projects.

The FAA would continue to regulate commercial launches and reentries and the bill directs them to develop a proposal for how to license commercial spacecraft containing space nuclear systems. It also extends the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight during which there is a “moratorium” on the FAA promulgating new regulations. Originally established by Congress in 2004, it has been extended several times, most recently in the Continuing Resolution that was enacted on September 30, the day it would have expired.  That extension was only until January 1, 2024. This legislation would make it October 1, 2031 (page 57, lines 4-6).

In a statement, Babin said the bill will “modernize our commercial space framework … by addressing outdated laws, enhancing innovation, and ensuring our partners are not stymied by regulatory hurdles. The U.S. cannot afford to surrender ground in space by failing to act, which is why the passage of this bill is vital.” Lucas added that the bill “crafts a favorable and competitive environment right here at home by streamlining our regulatory process and clarifying federal roles in licensing commercial space activities.”


Note: this article was updated November 7 to point specifically to where the bill extends the learning period since it is difficult to find.

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