Space Subcommittee Discusses Updates to the Commercial Space Launch Act

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Publication date: 
14 February 2014

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space held a February 4 hearing to discuss potential updates to the Commercial Space Launch Act.  Challenges faced by the commercial space industry include compliance with potentially outdated federal laws and regulations, federal export regimes, and international competition.  The hearing demonstrated bi-partisan interest in helping the development of the United States Commercial space sector. 

Key issues regarding the Commercial Space Launch Act include whether to extend the risk-sharing regime for liabilities in case of an accident.  This third-party liability regime was established under the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 1988, which outline regulations regarding insurance purchases, indemnification, and claim liability. 

Also under consideration by the committee are what obligations and liabilities exist for the government and commercial sectors under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Liability Convention of 1974.

Lastly, members of the subcommittee were interested in the regulatory learning period established in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004.  The learning period is intended to ensure that the Federal Aviation Administration would have the opportunity to establish regulations while allowing private industry to grow in the early stages of entry into the spaceflight market. 

Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) opened the hearing by emphasizing the need for Congress to continue providing a commercial space launch framework capable of adjusting to developments within the industry.  He noted the role of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program but also cautioned that the commercialization of human spaceflight is still in a learning period. 

Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) emphasized that commercial space transportation “draws heavily on government support” as she recognized taxpayer investments in space transportation services.  She was interested in discussing indemnification and implications that changes in that process would have for the insurance industry.  She also questioned whether commercial human spaceflight policy should differ from commercial space transportation of cargo or other payloads. 

Three witnesses testified.  George Nield, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation noted suborbital and industry growth as he discussed the National Space Transportation Policy.  He also addressed orbital transportation safety and international outreach in commercial space transportation activities. 

Alicia Cackley, Director of the Financial Markets and Community Investment Team at the Government Accountability Office spoke about the FAA’s Risk Assessment Process.  She provided background on the U.S. indemnification policy, the global commercial space launch industry, and liability coverage.  She outlined the factors that would contribute to indemnification costs and addressed gaps in federal indemnification.

Henry Hertzfeld, Research Professor of Space Policy and International Affairs at the George Washington University described the strengths of the Commercial Space Launch Act for government and private payloads.  He also discussed the need for expanded jurisdiction between the federal agencies involved in space activities as well as other non-transportation jurisdiction issues.  He addressed indemnification as it relates to the Outer Space Treaty and the Liability Convention and also provided members of the subcommittee with an overview of regulations of other nations.

Palazzo opened the discussion following the testimony by asking about the learning period and the FAA Advisory Committee’s recommendation that it be extended to a full eight years.  He and other members were also interested in whether companies who were issued a license for commercial space launches could continue testing launch capabilities once they had received a license. 

Discussions also focused on the appropriate role of government in the commercial space sector and whether the commercial space industry is hindered by overly burdensome regulations.  What entities should investigate accidents and what is the role of the many government agencies involved in space launches were also questions raised by members of the subcommittee.