Senate Commerce Committee to Mark Up New Space Frontier Act – UPDATED

Senate Commerce Committee to Mark Up New Space Frontier Act – UPDATED

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will meet on Wednesday to mark up several bills including a revised version of the Space Frontier Act.  Last year’s version passed the Senate, but was defeated in the House, during the waning days of the 115th Congress.  The new version is very similar, but adds a section addressing one of the criticisms that doomed it in the House. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill without amendment on April 3, 2019.]

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

The Space Frontier Act of 2019, S. 919, was introduced by Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Gary Peters (D-MI).  Wicker chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.  Cruz chairs its Aviation and Space Subcommittee and Sinema is the Ranking Member.  Peters is a member of the subcommittee.  Markey is a member of the full committee.

In a press release, Cruz said the bipartisan bill would “help to fortify America’s leadership in the domain of space.”  Sinema cited Arizona’s “thriving aerospace manufacturing community” and called for working in a bipartisan manner to “cut red tape, support our space industry, and ensure the United States continues to be a leader….”

The bill is very similar to a version that passed the Senate last year by unanimous consent on December 20.  Among its key provisions the bill would:

  • streamline and update regulation of the commercial space launch services and commercial satellite remote sensing businesses;
  • create an Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Commercial Space Transportation, who shall serve as Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (raising the level of the office within the Department);
  • establish a Bureau of Space Commerce in the Department of Commerce headed by an Assistant Secretary for Space Commerce (raising the level of the Office of Space Commerce, now part of NOAA, within the Department), with funding authorized at $10 million per year FY2020-2024;
  • establish U.S. policy to continue operating the International Space Station through 2030 and require NASA to “continuously maintain the capability for a continuous human presence in Earth orbit through and beyond the useful life of the ISS.”  That includes authorization for NASA to establish a low Earth orbit (LEO) commercialization program.

The bill does not assign new responsibilities to either the Department of Commerce (DOC) or the Department of Transportation (DOT) for regulating non-traditional space activities or interfacing with the civil and commercial space sectors on space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM).  No consensus has emerged on which Department should be in charge of those areas.  The Trump Administration wants DOC, but others advocate DOT.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is part of DOT, already regulates commercial space launches and reentries and oversees air traffic control, which some see as analogous to STM.

The bill failed to pass the House on December 21 largely due to opposition by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who now chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  He opposed the bill because it did not address issues associated with integrating commercial space launches and reentries into the National Airspace System (NAS) in order to reduce disruption to air travel.  The FAA must close the airspace around space launch and reentry sites. The growing number of launches and reentries, especially with the anticipated growth of suborbital space tourism by companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, is seen as problematic.

One change in the new Space Frontier Act is a section requiring a report from the Secretary of Transportation on how to more efficiently and safely integrate commercial space launch and reentries into the NAS.  It is due 90 days after the bill is enacted. Whether that is sufficient to win DeFazio’s support remains to be seen.

The FAA has been working on developing a new Space Data Integrator tool for several years to shorten how long the airspace must be closed.  Its FY2020 budget request includes a significant increase for that effort.

Although it was DeFazio’s effort that derailed the bill, it had only tepid support from leaders of the House, Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Former Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who then chaired the committee, complained that it was a “missed opportunity” that lacked the “bold reforms” in a House-passed bill that addressed some of these topics (the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act).  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who was Ranking Member of the committee at the time and is now its chairwoman, criticized the process used in getting the bill to the floor, which did not allow time for the issues to be properly vetted.  The bill was brought to the floor under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote to pass.  It failed 239-137, with 57 not voting.

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