One year ago, members of Congress involved in space issues had some high hopes for 2013, including a new NASA authorization bill and an update of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA). By the end of the year, though, House and Senate committees had approved sharply different NASA authorization bills—neither of which had been taken up by the full House or Senate—and hadn’t even started a CSLA update. (Even getting an extension of commercial launch indemnification was a challenge.) This year, though, key members and their staffs say they’ll try again to get both bills through Congress.
Speaking Wednesday morning at the 17th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee said he was hopeful that a bipartisan version of the NASA authorization bill—debate about which was unusually partisan last year—could be completed. “I think a bipartisan bill is in the realm of reality,” he said. Last month, the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), expressed a similar desire for a bipartisan bill now that the two-year budget deal reached late last year can help resolve the sharp differences in authorized funding levels between the House and Senate versions.
During a panel at the conference later Wednesday, staff members from the House and Senate agreed that Congress will work on a revised NASA authorization bill in the coming weeks. “Sen. Nelson would certainly like to get that updated in light of the budget deal and the omnibus, and get that moving again early this year,” said Ann Zulkosky of the Senate Commerce Committee, referring to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the committee’s space subcommittee.
“The only controversy that I think rose out of the NASA authorization markup really dealt with funding issues,” said Tom Hammond of the House Science Committee staff, referring to that committee’s markup of its version of a NASA authorization last July. With the budget deal and 2014 appropriations done, “I think members are hopeful that a lot of that will be behind them and they’ll be able to move forward early this spring.”
Both the House and Senate plan to take up legislation to update the CSLA this year as well, with the House Science Committee’s hearing earlier this week on “necessary updates” to current law as the first step in that process. Palazzo said the House would likely consider several issues in that update, including how the FAA calculates “maximum probable loss” figures (the amount of third-party damages that commercial launch providers must insure against before federal indemnification kicks in), extending the current restrictions (aka “learning period”) on spaceflight participant safety regulations, and the treatment by the FAA of so-called “hybrid” vehicles that have both aircraft and spacecraft elements, like SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. Hammond said later other issues could include the FAA’s interest in on-orbit authority to provide oversight of commercial space activities between launch and reentry, and addressing a current aspect of the law where a vehicle developer who has a permit for test flights has to give up that permit once it receives a launch license.
Zulkosky said the Senate Commerce Committee was looking to introduce a CSLA update bill “in the spring timeframe” along with a hearing on the topic. “This is an election year, so we have limited legislative days,” she said. “We’d like to get things going as quickly as possible this year.” Several issues she said the Senate bill would address are standards development, the license/permit issue, oversight within FAA of hybrid launch vehicles, updating commercial launch indemnification, and the commercial spaceflight regulatory restriction. “We are just really at the beginning phase of identifying what needs to be in a CSLA update,” Zulkosky said later in response to a question about potential provisions of the bill.