House Measure Would Extend Commercial Spaceflight Learning Period by 8 Years

Rep. Kevin McCarthy
Rep. Kevin McCarthy

The House Science Committee is set to mark up legislation on Wednesday introduced by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) that would extend the commercial spaceflight learning period for another eight years while requiring a series of progress reports on safety from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The proposed extension to the end of 2023 is three years longer than one in a measure introduced in the Senate. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Spaceflight (FAA AST) wants the moratorium on regulating the industry to expire as scheduled at the end of September.

McCarthy’s Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 (or SPACE Act of 2015) also contains several other key provisions, including the extension of launch liability indemnification cost sharing provisions and a rule change that would allow companies to hold experimental permits and launch licenses simultaneously.

While restricting the FAA from issuing regulations except in response to serious accidents, the House would require the agency to produce a series of status reports on safety and operational issues.

The Interim Industry Voluntary Consensus Standards Report would report on the industry’s efforts to develop its own standards. The reports, done in consultation with the industry-dominated Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), would be due at the end of 2016, 2018 and 2020.

FAA AST would produce the Interim Report on Knowledge and Operational Experience by the end of 2018 and 2020. The document would provide information about commercial spaceflight operations that would “support the development of a safety framework” for the industry.

The FAA AST also would contract with “an independent, private systems engineering and technical assistance organization or standards development organization” to conduct “an assessment of the readiness of the commercial space industry and the Federal Government to transition to a safety framework that may include regulations.” The independent review would be due by the end of 2021.

The measure also would extend launch indemnification provisions to the end of 2023. Companies are responsibility for damages a launch causes up to $500 million. The federal government covers any damages from $500 million to $2.7 billion. The company is responsible for any damages above that level.

McCarthy’s bill would require the FAA to update the methodology used to establish the maximum probable loss from a launch accident. The update would set requirements for companies obtaining third-party liability insurance.

Another provision would allow companies to hold experimental permits and launch licenses for their vehicles simultaneously. Currently, the experimental permit expires once the launch license is issued. Companies say current would prevent them from testing repairs and modifications to their spacecraft.

McCarthy’s bill also provides a definition of a “government astronaut” who would fly aboard commercial spacecraft being developed by Boeing, SpaceX and other companies.

The measure also adds space flight participants — i.e., passengers paying for a ride to space — to the list of parties required to have reciprocal waiver of claims “under which each party to the waiver agrees to be responsible for property damage or loss it or they sustain, or for personal injury to, death of, or property damage or loss sustained by its own employees resulting from an activity carried out under the applicable license.”

The measure would require NASA to hire an outside company to study frameworks for the management of space traffic and orbital activities. The space agency would have one year following the signing of the legislation to submit the report.

Finally, McCarthy’s bill includes a sense of Congress statement telling states involved in dangerous launch activities “should seek to take proper measures to secure their investments and the safety of third parties from potential damages that could be suffered from commercial launch activities.”

The statement is probably a reference to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island. The facility suffered extensive damage from the failure of an Antares launch vehicle in October. Virgin’s two U.S. Senators wrangled $20 million from the federal government to pay for the repairs.