House Advances Commercial Space and Astronaut Health Bills

Scott Kelly gives flu shot
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly gives himself a flu shot in September 2015 while flying on NASA’s first-ever one-year mission to the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives passed a commercial space bill unanimously while the House Science Committee approved a bill addressing astronaut health issues Sept. 21.

The House voted 425–0 to pass H.R. 6007, a bill introduced Sept. 13 by House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that gives the Federal Aviation Administration the authority to consider impacts on space operations in any study to determine if a proposed structure interferes with airspace operations.

The FAA currently has that authority for conventional aircraft operations, but the bill amends that law to include "the impact on launch and reentry for launch and reentry vehicles arriving or departing from a launch site or reentry site" in the section requiring such studies.

"Similar to airports, for our spaceports to function we need to prioritize safety and minimize the risk of structures interfering with the flight path of spacecraft on launch or reentry," McCarthy said in a brief speech on the House floor Sept. 20. He said the bill "gives the FAA the authority they now lack to examine whether structures being built near spaceports will obstruct spaceflight."

The bill was briefly debated Sept. 20 under suspension of the rules, a mechanism that allows for expedited passage of non-controversial bills, with no members speaking against it. The bill passed on a voice vote then, but final passage was delayed until a roll call vote requested by a member could be conducted the next day.

Neither McCarthy nor other members mentioned specific cases where proposed structures posed a hazard to spaceflight operations. However, last year officials at California's Mojave Air and Space Port criticized an FAA decision to allow the construction of taller electric transmission lines near the airport, which is an FAA-licensed launch site. Mojave is located in McCarthy's district.

A few hours before that final vote, the House Science Committee held a markup session on several pieces of legislation, including the To Research, Evaluate, Assess and Treat (TREAT) Astronauts Act. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, would authorize NASA to provide medical monitoring of former astronauts to better understand the long-term health effects of human spaceflight.

NASA has been seeking approval for such monitoring in recent years, in part to collect data on astronauts but also as an obligation to those who risked their lives flying in space. Babin's subcommittee held a hearing on the issue in June, and similar language is included in a NASA authorization bill the Senate Commerce Committee approved Sept. 21. The TREAT Astronauts Act was not formally introduced until the day before the markup.

"As a Congress, we have a responsibility to provide for the treatment of conditions caused by federal service," said Babin, a dentist whose district includes NASA's Johnson Space Center. "As a health care professional and as their representative, you could say it is my duty to make sure these folks are taken care of properly."

The committee approved the bill on a voice vote after accepting an amendment by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), also on a voice vote, making several minor changes to the original bill. Edwards is one of several co-sponsors of the bill.

"Our astronauts are heroes. They have served this nation in the face of extreme risks. Some of those risks involve the potential for medical conditions that may not reveal themselves for years or even decades after an astronaut's service," Edwards said. "It is our responsibility to ensure that we, as a nation, acknowledge the risks that these heroes have taken and, in return, provide our astronauts with the medical monitoring and treatment they need."

Originally published on SpaceNews.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.