Commercial Space Legislation Clears Senate Committee, Set for Vote in House Tomorrow – UPDATE

Commercial Space Legislation Clears Senate Committee, Set for Vote in House Tomorrow – UPDATE

Bipartisan legislation affecting commercial space activities cleared the Senate Commerce Committee this morning.  The House is scheduled to debate its own commercial space bill on the floor tomorrow, May 21, but although it addresses many of the same topics, it is quite different from the Senate bill and does not have bipartisan support.  [Click here to learn what the House did.]

The Senate bill, S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, is sponsored by Republican Senators Ted Cruz (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), and Cory Gardner (CO), and Democratic Senators Bill Nelson (FL) and Gary Peters (MI).  
It was adopted by voice vote, along with a Wicker (R-MS) amendment that adds another topic — as assessment of existing private and government infrastructure — to be included in a report required in Section 6.  The bill covers a broad range of issues affecting commercial space launch activities and commits the United States to utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) at least through 2024 as proposed by the Obama Administration last year.

The House bill, H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, rolls together four bills approved by the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee last week.  H.R. 2262 as introduced covered some, but not all, of the issues in S. 1297, but with different recommendations.  With the addition of the three other bills — H.R. 1508 (regarding asteroid mining), H.R. 2261 (commercial remote sensing) and H.R. 2263 (changing the name and duties of the Office of Space Commercialization in the Department of Commerce) — the House and Senate bills are more different still.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the House SS&T’s Space Subcommittee, prefers S. 1297.  She plans to offer S. 1297 as an “amendment in the nature of a substitute” to H.R. 2262 when it is debated on the floor of the House tomorrow.  The House Rules Committee approved her amendment and six others as part of the rule governing floor debate tomorrow.  That permits it to be brought up if she wishes to do so.  (The rule and the list of amendments that were “made in order” are on the Rules Committee’s website.)

The Obama Administration issued a Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 2262 yesterday and said that although it does not object to its passage, it has “serious concerns” with some of its provisions.

One of the differences is the length of time that the FAA is prohibited from issuing new regulations governing commercial human spaceflight.  Current law, originally passed in 2004, creates a “learning period” where future regulations that advocates fear could stymie the development of this new industry are prohibited while the industry gains experience to inform whatever regulations might be needed.  Alternatively, voluntary industry standards could be developed to obviate the need for government regulations.  The learning period expires on September 20, 2015.   The Senate bill would extend it until 2020.  The House bill would extend it to 2025.  The Administration wants it to be less than the 10-year extension in the House bill, but does not specify the length of time.

Another difference is language in the House bill to grant property rights to U.S. companies that mine resources on asteroids.   The Senate bill does not address this topic.  The Administration says that it supports efforts to facilitate innovative new space activities by U.S. companies, and recognizes the bill’s sponsors tried to ensure the bill is consistent with U.S. international obligations, but is concerned whether U.S. companies could move forward with such plans “absent additional authority to ensure continuing supervision of these initiatives by the U.S. Government as required by the Outer Space Treaty.”

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the national appropriation of the Moon or other celestial bodies.  It also requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the space activities of their non-governmental entities.  Supporters of the asteroid language in H.R. 2262 (originally in H.R. 1508) argue that the companies would not be claiming ownership of any celestial body, only of the resources extracted from them.

The Administration said that it looks forward to working with Congress as the legislation works it way through the legislative process.

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