After weathering the ups and downs of the lame-duck legislative process, legislation that would open the way for suborbital space tourism was cleared by the House on Saturday and sent on to the Senate for final congressional approval.
The bill, designated H.R. 5382 (PDF file), was approved through a 269-120 roll-call vote. That margin wasn't as overwhelming as it was when an earlier version of the legislation was cleared by the House in March, but it satisfied the two-thirds majority needed to suspend House rules and move the bill along in the final days of the session.
As in March, the bill must still be approved by the Senate before it goes to President Bush for signing into law. The first time around, the legislation languished for months during negotiations between House and Senate staffers — and even within the infant suborbital space travel industry itself. The changes in the legislative language that resulted from those protracted discussions were rolled into the current version of the bill.
This time around, the Senate went into Congress' Thanksgiving recess without taking action, but there's still a slim chance that the bill will be approved during a rare second lame-duck session in December.
Suborbital space companies have pressed to get the bill approved sooner rather than later, so that the FAA has a firm legislative foundation for regulation of the 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.
In a statement released after Saturday's House vote, the bill's congressional champions highlighted the historic possibilities ahead.
"Today marks a milestone in the history of aviation," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., declared. "This legislation will help promote commercial space travel by placing the industry on a firm regulatory footing, while ensuring the industry is sufficiently unconstrained to evolve and develop the new technologies that will one day make journeys into the heavens as real as flights overseas."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said the legislation was "a crucial first step" toward encouraging the next generation of space entrepreneurs.
"I am grateful to my colleagues' support of this bill so that the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry can have a successful beginning in giving the American people the chance to fly into space," Rohrabacher said in the statement.
Not an easy path
The legislation's path has not been easy. Just a few days ago, Boehlert said the bill would not become law, due to resistance from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which traditionally oversees aviation regulation.
The bill's backers on the Science Committee were able to smooth over the differences with the Transportation Committee's GOP leadership — but the transportation panel's ranking Democratic member, Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, voiced opposition on the grounds that the bill didn't do enough to safeguard crew and passenger safety on the yet-to-be-built suborbital spacecraft.
During the months of negotiations over the bill, suborbital space companies argued 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.
David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Science Committee, said the compromise bill that emerged from the negotiations 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.
During Friday's House debate, Oberstar said that provision was unacceptable.
"I do not want to see people dead from a space experiment, and then the federal government comes in to regulate," he said. Oberstar and another opponent, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., argued that the regulatory approach currently used in commercial aviation could be extended to suborbital spaceflight without discouraging innovation.
But Rohrabacher warned that voting down the legislation could force space entrepreneurs to go elsewhere.
"This will strangle the industry in the cradle, as I said over and over again, and it will force these people to launch their rockets and build them overseas," he said.
Although Rohrabacher and other backers of the bill voiced relief at the House vote, a huge obstacle still looms in the Senate: Any opposition could doom the bill to a legislative limbo — the same limbo where the earlier version of the legislation was held for months. Reports circulating on Capitol Hill indicated that bill was indeed put on hold in the Senate, although it was not immediately clear whether the problem was merely procedural or related to the concerns raised by Oberstar in the House.
The Senate adjourned early Sunday for a Thanksgiving holiday recess, but it is due to reconvene in December to consider legislation on intelligence reform. That would offer another chance to take up the suborbital spaceflight bill as well. If no further action is taken before the current congressional session ends, the next Congress would have to start fresh on a process that could take another year or two.