House SS&T Approves Four Commercial Space Bills

House SS&T Approves Four Commercial Space Bills

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved four commercial space bills today after lengthy debate largely along partisan lines.  Thirteen amendments were offered to the main bill, the SPACE Act (H.R. 2262), an update of the Commercial Space Launch Act.  While Republicans touted a long list of endorsements from commercial space companies, Rep. Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX) did not find that surprising, protesting that “the bill came straight from industry.”

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act is a broad bill with many provisions and it engendered lengthy debate.  House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) are original co-sponsors.   Perhaps the most significant amendment adopted to that bill was proposed by Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) to extend until 2025 the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight as well as the FAA’s authority to indemnify commercial space launch companies against certain amounts of third party liability in the event of a launch accident.

The learning period refers to a span of years when the FAA is not
allowed to promulgate new regulations governing commercial human
spaceflight that might stifle that industry’s growth as it gains
experience.  That period is set to expire on September 30, 2015.  The indemnification provision means that the government
would pay for certain amounts of damages to uninvolved individuals in
the event of a launch accident (the commercial companies must purchase
insurance to cover other amounts).  The government has had
Indemnification authority for commercial launches since 1988, but
Congress extends it for set periods of time rather than permanently so
it can periodically review whether it is still needed.  Current authority ends on December 31, 2016.

As introduced, H.R. 2262 would have extended the learning period and third-party indemnification to 2023.   Knight argued for another two years to provide stability for the commercial industry.  Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) offered amendments to reduce the time to 5 years for both provisions so Congress could have more opportunity to review the issues as the industry evolves.  She pointed out that the Senate version of the bill would extend those provisions only until 2020.  Nonetheless, Knight’s amendment won.

The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, H.R. 1508, sponsored by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), also was particularly controversial.  It grants property rights to materials mined on asteroids by U.S. companies.  The bill is co-sponsored by a Democrat, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), but he is not a member of House SS&T and Democrats on this committee strongly opposed it.   Johnson offered a substitute that would have called for a study of the issues associated with property rights in space, noting that at a hearing last year, a highly respected space lawyer, Joanne Gabrynowicz, asserted a prior version of the bill would violate U.S. obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.   Johnson said that Gabrynowicz reviewed the current bill and had similar concerns.  Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) went further and said “the bill is unconstitutional, not even a close question.”  Posey countered that there have been enough studies and what is needed now is action to ensure U.S. leadership in this pursuit.  As for the constitutionality question, he repeated a point made by Grayson that the founding fathers could not have imagined a time when laws were needed about mining other bodies in the solar system, and said that raising this as an issue was simply an obstructionist tactic.  Johnson’s amendment failed on a party-line vote.

The other two bills were less controversial.   Rep. Bridenstine’s (R-OK) Commercial Remote Sensing Act (H.R. 2261) and Rep. Rohrabacher’s (R-CA) Office of Space Commerce Act (H.R. 2263) passed easily, with a relatively minor Grayson amendment adopted to H.R. 2261.  That bill seeks to facilitate NOAA granting licenses to commercial remote sensing companies in a timely manner.  H.R. 2263 would change the name of NOAA’s Office of Space Commercialization to the Office of Space Commerce and expand its responsibilities.

The texts of all the bills and amendments and the disposition of the amendments are posted on the committee’s website.

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