Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, said that while he first thought the legislation was "a little flighty," he came to realize that "this is about a lot more than joyrides in space. This is about the future of the U.S. aerospace industry."
Laws already exist to regulate private sector space endeavors such as satellite launches, but there is no legal jurisdiction for regulating commercial human spaceflight.
American businessman Dennis Tito in 2001 became the world's first space tourist when he rode a Russian rocket to the international space station. He was followed last year by South African Internet magnate Mark Shuttleworth , who — like Tito — paid the Russians $20 million for the ride.
Two more Americans have signed contracts for similar spaceflights with the Russians sometime in the next couple of years. Such international flights are currently governed by a different set of passenger rules.
The House bill, which passed 402-1, gives regulatory authority over human flight to the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
To make it easier for companies to test new types of reusable suborbital rockets, the bill gives the office the authority to issue experimental permits that can be obtained more quickly and with less bureaucracy than licenses.
It also requires the Office of Commercial Space Transportation to come up with regulations for crew pertaining to training and medical conditions. Space tourists would have to be informed of the risks involved in their travel.
The bill also extends for three years an existing law under which commercial space launch companies are required to carry liability insurance, capped at $500 million, with assurances that the government will compensate for losses above that.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the Science Committee's space panel and sponsor of the bill, said encouraging private entrepreneurs to develop new space travel technology would have spinoffs for the Pentagon. "Our great space entrepreneurs," he said, "are going to be developing aerospace technologies that can be put into our national security."
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration. The one dissenting vote was Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
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