Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo under construction. Image credit: Virgin Galactic

May 25, 2015 U.S. legislators take steps to boost commercial space industry

Sen—Rejecting pleas for additional studies, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation last week intended to boost commercial space projects, including a pioneering initiative granting companies property rights to minerals mined from asteroids.

The Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015 combines four separate bills, the most controversial of which involves government oversight of the fledgling commercial human space launch industry.

“This bill is the future of space,” said Texas Republican Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House committee on Science, Space and Technology. “It will encourage the private sector to build rockets, to take risk and to shoot for the heavens  … It creates more stable regulatory conditions and improves safety, which in turn attracts private investment.”

Under the bill, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is in charge of licensing commercial launches by U.S. companies, would be prohibited from issuing new regulations for commercial spaceflight crew and passengers through 2025, allowing the industry to gain some much-needed experience. The current moratorium on regulations expires on Sept. 30, 2015. Advocates argued that the industry, still in infancy and not yet flying, needs more time to develop its spaceships, operations and businesses.

Opponents said the 10-year learning period is too lenient and exposes paying passengers to too much risk. Indemnification for third-party damages also would prohibit customers from suing vehicle manufacturers and transportation providers, even in cases of negligence, they argued.

“It’s up to Congress to develop responsible commercial space policies that both encourage the commercial space industry and protect those who participate ... Sadly, this bill just doesn’t measure up to that responsibility. Instead it takes a fundamentally unbalanced approach to the issues facing the commercial space launch industry,” Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards said during a two-hour House hearing on the bill.

Edwards said a decade-long moratorium on FAA regulations is “very dangerous. It’s an unprecedented regulation-free period for the commercial human spaceflight industry and puts no pressure on the industry to establish industry consensus standards, standards that could potentially be used as self-regulation measures for the industry.”

Currently, the FAA moratorium can be lifted in case of an accident. Theoretically, the Oct. 31, 2014, loss of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury means the FAA could step in with regulations, though the issue is in a legal grey area because SpaceShipTwo was still in testing, not commercial service, and flying under an experimental permit, not an operational license.

The SPACE Act of 2015 retains the original legislation’s language but extends the moratorium to Dec. 31, 2025.

“This bill … reaffirmed the FAA’s authority to regulate commercial space launches and re-entries for the safety of the uninvolved public, safety of crew and safety of spaceflight participants in response to an incident or a series of indications that something is wrong,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based industry organization, said in a statement.

“Further, the SPACE Act fosters the development of industry-wide, voluntary consensus standards and other means by which the federal government can encourage an ever-improving safety framework for the industry,” Stallmer said.

Edwards’ objections were echoed by Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, who also took issue with the bill’s “steps into uncharted waters involving space property rights.”

“I’m not against asteroid mining or space resource utilization. Those activities will come in time. However, I am in for getting any legislation that addresses these areas right. We’re not at all close to resolving the many unanswered questions and issues,” she said.

The bill stipulates that federal agencies shall 1) facilitate the commercial exploration and utilization of space resources to meet national needs; 2) discourage government barriers to the development of economically viable, safe and stable industries; and 3) promote the rights of commercial entities to explore outer space, as well as transfer, sell and utilize space resources, in accordance with existing international obligations of the United States.

It also states that any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained the resources.

Forty-eight Democrats joined all but three Republicans to approve the bill 284 to 133, with 15 legislators not voting.

A companion bill is pending in the Senate, though that version offers a regulatory moratorium to the commercial human spaceflight industry only through 2020 and does not address space property rights.