Members of Congress and their aides mounted a hurry-up offense Thursday to revive a bill that would open the way for suborbital space tourism, but it was not yet clear whether the legislation could be approved in the closing days of the lame-duck session.
At least one Democrat who is influential on aviation issues, Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, made clear that he would oppose the bill in its current form. That in itself could be enough to doom the legislation, depending on how hard the House GOP leadership wants to push the issue.
The day's developments marked yet another turnabout for a bill that had been declared dead just 24 hours earlier. The legislation seeks to put private-sector suborbital spaceflights such as SpaceShipOne's recent outings on much firmer regulatory footing. It was passed overwhelmingly by the House in March but ran into roadblocks in the Senate.
After months of negotiations, staff members from the House Science Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee last week ironed out a compromise version of the bill that they felt could slide through both congressional chambers without objection. However, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which deals with aviation issues and shares jurisdiction with the Science Committee in the lower chamber, initially refused to release the bill for consideration.
That led the House Science Committee's chairman, New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert, to declare on Wednesday that "the bill is not going to be signed into law."
Despite the setback, the bill's strongest backers, led by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., continued to lobby for the bill with their colleagues on the Transportation Committee. On Thursday, the Transportation Committee's GOP leadership decided to release the bill after all, said David Goldston, chief of staff for the Science Committee. The bill had been designated as H.R. 3752, but the compromise version was given a new number: H.R. 5382. (Read a PDF file of the text.)
Committee leaders exchanged letters affirming that the two panels shared jurisdiction over the bill, Goldston said. He indicated that the Transportation Committee's leadership was also reassured that the current version of the bill contained more safety provisions than the original version that the House approved so easily in March.
Not a done deal
Goldston cautioned Thursday that the bill's revival was not yet a done deal: "The reason I'm hesitant to now say ‘full speed ahead’ with the same certainty I was saying it was dead yesterday is that there's that one last matter to be resolved."
Goldston said it was not clear to him whether the bill would be acceptable to Rep. Oberstar, the ranking Democratic member of the Transportation Committee. But Jim Berard, communications director on the panel's Democratic staff, made Oberstar's view quite clear to MSNBC.com: Oberstar believes the bill still does not go far enough to safeguard the safety of crew members and passengers on future suborbital spaceships, he said.
"If the bill is brought up under unanimous consent, Congressman Oberstar would most likely object, unless something can be done to address that particular language," Berard said.
In a straight up-and-down vote, the opposition of just one member wouldn't pose a problem. But so little time remains in this lame-duck session that congressional rules have to be short-circuited in order to approve the suborbital spaceflight bill. The easiest way would be through unanimous consent, and Oberstar's objection would close off that avenue.
That leads to a more complicated scenario, involving a vote to suspend the rules — and it's not clear whether the House GOP leadership would be willing or able to go down that road. In the more deliberative Senate, unanimous consent would be even more important.
"Any one unsatisfied customer can cause a problem," Goldston said.
What the bill would do
If efforts to get the bill approved in the next few days are unsuccessful, Congress would have to start fresh next year — and it could well take another year or two to draft fresh legislation, Goldston said.
Suborbital space companies have pressed to get the bill approved sooner rather than later, so that the FAA has a firm legislative foundation for its regulation of the infant industry — and so that entrepreneurs and investors know the rules of the game they're getting into.
The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has already begun regulating suborbital space travel, and the bill would streamline those procedures. Even more importantly, the bill would give the go-ahead for private-sector spacecraft 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 looms as key issue
Oberstar's objections highlight the bill's most controversial provision, having to do with the safety of crew members and passengers.
Suborbital space companies have argued for less restrictive standards, saying that the FAA should be concerned with safeguarding only the uninvolved public, at least in the near future. That would allow innovators to take on more risk in the early years of the industry — just as early aviators did in the barnstorming era.
Goldston said last week's compromise 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, giving the industry a chance to mature. Starting in 2012, the FAA could regulate the industry however it saw fit, Goldston said.
Berard told MSNBC.com that the provision was unacceptable to Oberstar.
"Congressman Oberstar believes that legislation puts into law a 'tombstone mentality' ... where we're just going to stand by idly and wait until people die," Berard said. "That is something that he's fought against in commercial airline regulation during his entire time in Congress."
Goldston and others working on the bill's behalf had hoped it would come up for approval by the full House on Friday, but opposition could complicate the timetable. In any case, Goldston said negotiations would likely continue as long as Congress was in session.
"As long as we're in, we’ll work on it," he said.