Senate Commercial Space Launch Bill Includes Extending ISS to 2024-UPDATE

Senate Commercial Space Launch Bill Includes Extending ISS to 2024-UPDATE

UPDATE, May 13, 2015:  Senator Cruz issued a press statement today that includes expressions of support for the bill from a variety of commercial space industry companies and organizations.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 12, 2015: The sponsors of a bipartisan Senate bill to update the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) issued a statement today saying the bill responds to the needs of a changing industry.  The bill brings the future of the International Space Station (ISS) into the commercial space launch debate.  The two are intertwined with the advent of the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, but the bill language is more general, formally committing the United States to ISS operations through 2024 as proposed by the White House last year.  The bill is quite different from legislation that will be marked up by a House committee tomorrow.

S. 1297 is co-sponsored on the Republican side by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and fellow presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) along with freshman Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).   Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and freshman Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) represent the Democrats.  Cruz chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  Peters is the top Democrat (ranking member) on that panel.  Nelson is the ranking member of the full committee. Cruz, Rubio, Nelson and Gardner are from States with strong government and commercial space sectors.

Entitled the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297 would extend the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight, as well as the FAA’s authority to provide third-party indemnification to U.S. launch services providers, to 2020.  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.  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.

Those provisions are different from legislation that will be marked up by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee tomorrow.  That committee is set to debate four commercial space bills, one of which — the SPACE Act, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — is also intended to update CSLA.  The House and Senate bills are different in many ways.

The House bill would extend the learning period and third-party indemnification through 2025 rather than 2020.  It addresses a range of other issues including space traffic management and a sense of Congress statement that States should take proper measures to secure their investments in space launch facilities.

The Senate bill does not discuss either of those issues, but commits the United States to continued operation and utilization of ISS, which is not addressed in the House bill.  S. 1297 would enact into law a U.S. commitment to ISS operations through at least 2024, instead of at least 2020 as stated in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  The White House announced over a year ago that it plans to continue ISS operations through 2024, but that is not codified in law yet. 

The Senate bill also calls on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to determine what federal agenc(ies) should oversee various aspects of the commercial utilization of space, and for the FAA to streamline approval of licenses and permits for hybrid vehicles that currently must deal with two separate FAA offices.

S. 1297 also includes language requiring the Secretary of Transportation
in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and others to submit a
study on the feasibility of releasing “safety-related space situational
awareness [SSA] data and information.”  DOD’s willingness (or lack
thereof) to release certain SSA data on the locations of U.S. and other
satellites to commercial space operators is a long-running debate. 
While SSA is part of space traffic management, the provisions in the
House and Senate bills seem only tangentially related to each other.

There are similarities, though.  Both bills add and define “government astronaut” as a type of individual who might be aboard a commercial human space flight, encourage industry to develop voluntary standards for commercial human spaceflight, smooth the process for moving from experimental permit to a license, and encourage the FAA to update how it calculates “maximum probable loss” in determining how much insurance commercial launch services companies must purchase.

The House and Senate bills both are very broad and include many other provisions.

The Senate Commerce Committee has not announced a date to mark up S. 1297.  Cruz held a hearing on commercial space issues on February 25 and he has stated several times that updating CSLA is his first priority as subcommittee chairman. 

Editor’s Note: the original version of this article said the House bill extends third party indemnification and the learning period to 2023, but it is 2025.  As introduced, it was 2023, but it was amended during committee markup to 2025.

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