The House of Representatives approved Nov. 20 a bill that would establish government regulations for the emerging sub-orbital human spaceflight industry.
The bill, which had been written off as dead just three days before is now headed for the Senate, where swift action is needed if the measure is to become law this year.
The main purpose of the bill is to give the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clear authority to regulate sub-orbital human space flight and set some of the initial guidelines. The bill would also establish an experimental permit regime allowing firms to fly prototypes and test vehicles with a lot less FAA paperwork than would otherwise be required.
Saturday's triumph for proponents of a private commercial space came after a long battle through Congress.
Beginning March of this year, the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (H.R. 3752) as it was first known, sailed through the House of Representatives on a vote of 402-1, only to bog down in the Senate over concerns about what types of vehicles would qualify as sub-orbital rockets. Also at issue was whether passengers should be required to sign away their right to sue before climbing aboard one of the vehicles.
Months of negotiations followed, and a compromise was reached in October that appeared to satisfy all sides. However, the bill's staunchest supporters balked when Senate Commerce Committee staffers added a reference to crew and passenger safety to the bill just as it was being positioned for final action in the Senate. Opponents to the addition feared the safety language would let the FAA withhold licenses from operators of future commercial spaceflight services offering to take passengers.
Following the Nov. 2 general election at the start of the "lame duck" session of Congress, lawmakers reached another deal on Nov 12. With the House Science Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee in agreement on the text of the legislation, approval appeared likely.
But the bill encountered objections from members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who were given a chance to review the bill because of its traditional jurisdiction over aviation regulatory matters.
On Nov. 17, Transportation Committee spokesman Steven Hansen said that the bill had changed substantially since its approval in March by the House. Members were uncomfortable with the crew and passenger safety language worked out between the House Science Committee and Senate Commerce Committee, and wanted to wait until next year to deal with the legislation.
"When they throw something like this in our laps during the last days of a lame duck session, we don't have time to review it, much less pass important regulatory legislation like this," Hansen said.
He said the bill's crew and passenger safety provisions were a "red flag" that required much more scrutiny.
"There is a provision in this legislation that says the FAA could not administer safety regulations on these flights until somebody is killed," Hansen said.
Champions of the bill soon convinced the Transportation Committee's Republicans that the revised bill actually gives the FAA more leeway to regulate crew and passenger safety than the version that passed in March. However, the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), remained unconvinced. Without Oberstar's support, unanimous consent was impossible, which meant the bill would have to be put to a formal vote.
On Nov. 19, Republicans and Democrats on the House Science Committee took the bill, since renumbered as H.R. 5382, down to the floor for consideration under a suspension of the rules, a special procedure used to speed up action by setting aside the regular rules for considering a bill.
Bills brought up under a suspension of the rules are debated for 40 minutes and may not be amended, but require a two-thirds majority to pass.
House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y) and Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Nick Lampson (D-Tex.) made impassioned pleas for passage of the bill.
But Oberstar, joined by Rep. Peter De?Fazio (D-Ore.), the ranking member on the House Transportation aviation subcommittee, argued just as vigorously for putting the bill aside until the new Congress convenes in January.
The bill passed by voice vote in the mostly empty chamber, but Oberstar challenged the outcome forcing it to a roll call vote.
That vote occurred Nov. 20 with the bill passing 269-120.
Several companies are planning private businesses to take paying passengers on brief sub-orbital flights to the edge of space, including Virgin Galactic, a venture headed by Virgin Atlantic Chairman Richard Branson. He has teamed with Scaled Compostes, the manufacturer of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed piloted vehicle to successfully reach space.
The changes to the bill that drew Oberstar and DeFazio's objections were worked over weeks of negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on the House Science Committee and Senate Commerce Committee.
David Goldston, the House Science Committee's chief of staff and one of the lead negotiators on the suborbital bill, said the latest version of the bill actually gives the FAA more leeway in regulating crew and passenger safety than the version the House passed in March.
As it stands now, the bill does not impede the FAA in carrying out its responsibility to ensure that the safety of uninvolved general public is not threatened by suborbital space jaunts. However, it will initially limit the FAA's say on crew and passenger safety, raise objections to vehicle designs or operating practices that have already caused death, serious injury or close calls.
After 2012, Goldston said, the FAA would be free to regulate crew and passenger safety "any way they want."
Private spaceflight boosters, including Rohrabacher, say that the federal government has to permit early paying passengers to risk serious injury or even death if a viable space tourism industry is to stand any chance of getting off the ground.
At one point during the final week of Congress, when the bill's prospects were looking especially grim, Goldston said it could take as long as two years to get the legislation teed up again for enactment.