Largely overlooked last week in the hubbub about hearings on the NASA budget proposal, a new NASA authorization bill, and relations with Russia was a move by a Senate committee on Wednesday to approve legislation to adjust the commercial launch licensing system for reusable suborbital vehicles.
S. 2140, introduced last month by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) with several bipartisan co-sponsors, would allow suborbital RLVs to hold both an experimental permit and a launch license. Under current law, vehicles that hold an experimental permit—which allows for test, but not revenue-generating, flights—have to surrender that permit when receiving a full-fledged launch license.
Some in the industry sought the ability to retain less-restrictive permits so they could be used for test flights, while using the license for commercial flights. “I think anybody who is building multiple vehicles over time will want to have, at different times, those vehicles on a permit and operating under a license,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a luncheon talk at the Goddard Memorial Symposium outside Washington, DC, last month.
What the Senate Commerce Committee approved without discussion, as part of a basket of other bills, was an amended version of S.2140 offered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, that achieves the same aim, with minor changes to the language of the section.
“Innovative industries like commercial spaceflight are advancing rapidly, and we can’t allow outdated laws to stifle progress. Unfortunately that’s exactly what’s happening,” Rubio said in a statement. “These laws did not anticipate what commercial companies are now doing with vehicle testing and commercial spaceflights, and therefore have caused progress to slow.” (It’s worth noting that the “outdated” law amended by this bill is less than ten years old: the ability of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to issue experimental permits was established with the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, passed in late 2004.)
Rubio’s statement also included a word of thanks from Whitesides. “This legislation addresses a technical issue that will help the commercial spaceflight industry develop and deploy reusable space vehicles quickly and safely,” he said.