President Bush gave suborbital space companies an early Christmas gift on Thursday by signing a bill that helps open the way for commercial tourism on the final frontier.
The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, or H.R. 5382, puts a clear legislative stamp on regulations already being formulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. More significantly, the law would eventually let paying passengers fly on suborbital launch vehicles at their own risk.
The age of commercial space travel got its start this summer with SpaceShipOne's first private-sector spaceflights. Since then, hundreds of would-be tourists, including William Shatner of "Star Trek" fame and "Alien" actress Sigourney Weaver, have voiced interest in taking their own suborbital space trips aboard the successors to SpaceShipOne, which may be ready for flight in 2007 or 2008.
The backers of H.R. 5382 said the legislation was needed to reassure potential investors, such as Virgin Group billionaire Richard Branson, that they would not face crippling lawsuits in an inherently risky business.
Space policy consultant James Muncy, who has been following the legislation's up-and-down course closely, explained that the law would help the infant suborbital industry "get through the 21st-century equivalent of the barnstorming era."
Congressional staff members said Bush signed the bill on Thursday without fanfare. The FAA now has 12 months to draw up a new set of draft regulations that would provide for passenger flights. Final regulations would take effect six months later.
H.R. 5382's trip through Congress to the White House was not a smooth one: The legislative language was the result of months of negotiations, and the bill didn't win final congressional passage until the final minutes of the session on Dec. 8.
The FAA's role in suborbital spaceflight safety was a key sticking point: Under the terms of the legislation, the FAA would regulate the industry over the next eight years primarily to protect the uninvolved public and the public interest. The agency would start regulating space vehicles to ensure crew and passenger safety only if the operation of those vehicles resulted in death, serious injury or a dangerous close call.
Beginning in 2012, the FAA could regulate suborbital spaceships however it saw fit.
The bill's backers said the eight-year period would give spaceship developers more freedom to experiment and also allow them to generate revenue by taking on passengers, as long as those passengers knew exactly what they were getting into.
That two-step regulatory regime rubbed some House Democrats the wrong way. During last month's floor debate, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said the legislation could encourage a "tombstone mentality," in which regulators would have to stand by until someone got killed or seriously hurt. Nevertheless, the bill was resurrected and approved by the House, 269-120, on the last full day of November's lame-duck session.
Final consideration in the Senate had to wait until an even later mini-session in December, which was required in order to approve an intelligence reform bill. The spaceflight bill went virtually unmentioned on the Senate floor, but the behind-the-scenes debate continued up to almost the last minute.
Firm opposition from even one senator could have stymied the bill, and if the Senate had not acted before ending its session, the legislation's backers would have had to start from scratch next year — potentially delaying the industry's development.
In the end, the legislation was tacked onto a package of House bills that were approved by unanimous consent in the Senate.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said in a press statement that the legislation's passage was a "great victory for the future of America's space efforts."
“The people who will invest the type of big dollars necessary to make this a major new step in mankind’s ascent into space have been waiting for the government to lay down the regulatory regime and set the rules of the game, and this is the first major step toward doing that,” he said.
Approval in the Senate came as a surprise even to some of the bill's biggest backers. When informed that the legislation had actually passed, Muncy responded with a mild expletive of wonderment.
"Never watch sausage or legislation being made," he told MSNBC.com. "It's been a long, tortuous road."
After collecting his thoughts, Muncy paid tribute to officials at the FAA and the Department of Transportation, as well as members of Congress and their aides.
"Congress is clearly saying that it doesn't want to be a barrier," he said. "It wants to open doors and fly the American public into space."