Senate Passes Commercial Space Bill, Extends ISS to 2024

Senate Passes Commercial Space Bill, Extends ISS to 2024

The Senate passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, today (August 4) by unanimous consent.  The broadly cast bill not only deals with several issues directly related to commercial space launch, but also extends operation of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2024.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, was approved by the committee on May 20 and formally reported from committee on July 22.  Cosponsors include Republican Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Democrats Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).  

Cruz said the bill carries forward “President Reagan’s torch” by making a commitment to continued support of the commercial space sector.   The original Commercial Space Launch Act was enacted in 1984 during Reagan’s presidency.   It also extends the U.S. commitment to ISS operations through 2024.   President Reagan initiated the space station program in his 1984 State of the Union Address.  Cruz also tied the legislation to Texas interests, noting that it “recognizes that Texas has a major stake in space exploration” and the ISS commitment signifies that Johnson Space Center employees “will continue to play a vital role in the future” of human spaceflight.

Nelson, the top Democrat on the full committee, said the bill will “help clear the way for the commercial space companies to grow and thrive on Florida’s Space Coast and across the nation” and help “with our push to explore Mars.”

In addition to the extension of ISS to 2024, the bill —

  • extends to 2020 the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight whereby the FAA cannot promulgate new regulations except under certain circumstances (sometimes called a “moratorium,” it currently expires on September 30, 2015);
  • extends FAA’s authority to indemnify commercial space launch companies from third party liability claims for certain amounts of money until 2020 (current authority expires on December 31, 2016);
  • establishes a new “Government Astronaut” category of passenger on commercial spaceflights separate from crew and spaceflight participants;
  • asks the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in consultation with NASA and other government agencies, to assess and recommend approaches for the oversight of commercial space activities; and
  • asks for a report on how to streamline the process for obtaining licenses and permits for innovative launch vehicles, such as hybrids that use both aircraft and rockets.

The House passed a related bill, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262, on May 21.  There are many differences between the House and Senate bills, and the House bill passed against strong Democratic objections, but there also are similarities providing a basis for conference discussions.

President Obama decided last year that the United States would continue operations of ISS to 2024, but current law says only that it will operate “at least through 2020.”  That does not preclude operations beyond 2020, but some argue that the later date should also be stated in law.   Canada and Russia have agreed with the proposal to continue operations through 2024; Japan and Europe have not done so yet.

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