Image: Suborbital vehicle
Space Adventures
An artist's conception shows a suborbital space vehicle in flight. When will such vehicles go into commercial service, and under what conditions?
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 11/18/2004 12:21:08 PM ET 2004-11-18T17:21:08

An 11th-hour bid to pass legislation allowing paying passengers to take suborbital space trips is falling short, congressional aides and lawmakers say.

Barring a miraculous revival, H.R. 3752 would die out when this week's lame-duck session is adjourned. Its backers would then have to start fresh next year with the new Congress. Speaking on condition of anonymity, some of those backers told MSNBC.com Thursday that they haven't yet given up trying to get the bill in the next few days — but they were facing lengthening odds.

The week's developments fit right in with the bill's up-and-down history.

The bill would put private-sector suborbital spaceflights on much firmer regulatory footing. It was approved overwhelmingly by the House back in March but languished in the Senate for months, during a series of negotiations that involved first the suborbital space industry , then Senate Commerce Committee staff members. House and Senate negotiators hammered out one compromise version in October, only to have it put on hold after industry players raised objections.

Yet another deal was reached late last week, said David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Science Committee. That version was shot down, however, when the Science Committee referred it to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure for its signoff. The Transportation Committee, which traditionally deals with commercial aviation issues, was given jurisdiction over the bill after the House approved it in March, Goldston said.

Members of the Transportation Committee were uncomfortable with the way the bill handled issues relating to crew and passenger safety, and wanted more time to review the legislation in its entirety, said Steve Hansen, the panel's director of communications.

Meanwhile, the Senate gave final congressional approval Tuesday night to H.R. 5245, another bill that would extend indemnification protection for unmanned satellite launches. Those provisions originally were part of H.R. 3752 but were separated out when the fate of the more ambitious bill became questionable.

Disappointment voiced
In a written statement, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., said he was "very disappointed" that the suborbital spaceflight bill was stymied.

"I hope we will be able to revive the bill next year," he said. "But everyone should understand that the final deal was a delicate, carefully calibrated compromise on precisely how much regulation was appropriate, and when. Those kinds of carefully tuned instruments tend to decay pretty rapidly over time. I fear that we're going to have to start all over next year."

Suborbital space companies had anxiously sought passage of the bill because it would have given the Federal Aviation Administration clear legislative guidance on how to regulate the infant industry.

H.R. 3752's progress through Congress already has provided some of that guidance, even if it fell short of final passage, said Rich Pournelle, spokesman for California-based XCOR Aerospace. This year XCOR received an FAA license for a suborbital test vehicle, thanks to regulations that were modeled after the proposed legislation.

"By moving this bill along, we've been able to advance the debate further and eliminate some of the uncertainty," Pournelle said. "It's disappointing that the clock ran out here ... but a lot of work has been put into this, so we're that much closer to getting something put together next year."

The bill would have gone further than current regulations by streamlining the FAA's procedure for issuing experimental permits. What's more, private-sector spacecraft could be approved to carry paying passengers on a "fly at your own risk" basis. That would be unprecedented: During its history-making flights this year, SpaceShipOne was licensed to carry only crew members.

Safety becomes key issue
The FAA's role in monitoring the safety of suborbital spaceflights became a key issue in the congressional negotiations. The industry argued for less restrictive standards, saying that the FAA should be concerned with safeguarding only the uninvolved public. But some of the parties involved in the Capitol Hill negotiations pressed for the FAA to watch out for the safety of the crew and passengers as well.

Goldston said last week's compromise, worked out by staff members from the House Science Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee, called for the FAA to consider crew and passenger safety only if the spacecraft in question "has already been shown in real flights to cause problems" — for example, if there were deaths, serious injuries or close calls.

That provision would apply for eight years, to give the suborbital space industry a chance to mature, just as commercial aviation matured relatively free from regulation in the early barnstorming era. Starting in 2012, the FAA could regulate the industry however it saw fit, Goldston said.

When the Transportation Committee looked at the compromise, the language on safety regulations stuck out like a "red flag that was waving brightly," Hansen said.

"The FAA could not administer safety regulations unless someone is killed on one of these flights, until 2012. A provision like that in itself, we believe, requires a more serious explanation than what we've received so far," Hansen said.

Resetting the clock
The lame-duck session's short time frame didn't allow for the review that Transportation Committee members felt was necessary, Hansen said. "Had we seen this compromise bill, maybe we could have done something. But to get this thrown in our lap in the last days of a lame-duck session ... we believe it warrants a much closer look," he said.

If the Transportation Committee's assent was so crucial to the bill's final passage, why weren't its staff members more involved in the negotiations? What we have here may have been a failure to communicate: Goldston said the Transportation Committee left the fine-tuning to the Science Committee, which had spent months drafting the original bill. Hansen said the Transportation Committee had indeed given its signoff back in March — but didn't fully realize how much the bill had changed until it was presented with the final product this week.

Hansen said the Transportation Committee "had no idea that the Science Committee and some people in the Senate were trying to negotiate a completely new deal," even though such negotiations were widely reported .

It's not yet clear whether the legislation's demise will affect the timetable for future suborbital space ventures, such as the Virgin Galactic tour service scheduled to begin in 2007.

"At the moment, no one's being held up," XCOR's Pournelle said.

But Goldston said it could take another year or two to get revised legislation as close to passage as H.R. 3752 came this week.

"It turns out to be an extremely complicated policy question and even more difficult to draft, and everyone who gets involved has to follow the same learning curve," he said. "And that takes a long time."

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