Space Race 2: Congress weighs in

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ  |  Nov. 23, 2004 at 8:06 AM
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Nov. 23 (UPI) -- It lacks the panache and the publicity of SpaceShipOne's sprints beyond Earth's atmosphere, but legislation revived last weekend from near-death might do as much for bolstering a commercial human spaceflight industry as Burt Rutan's winged wonder.

The House of Representatives approved the bill, called the Commercial Space Launch Act, on Saturday by a vote of 269 to 120. It sets the regulatory framework for private space travel based in the United States.

Though in principle legislators solidly support the idea of space tourism, when it comes time to structure the government's roles and responsibilities in this new arena, unanimity breaks down. For example, disagreement among members of a key House subcommittee considering the proposed amendment to the CSLA tossed a procedural monkey wrench into the legislative process, setting the stage for a lively, 11th hour debate about how much oversight the government should have to let passengers fly -- and possibly die -- aboard privately owned and operated sub-orbital space vehicles.

To underscore the contentiousness, the opponents of the bill challenged the results of a voice vote Friday, forcing members to reconvene Saturday for a roll call.

Bill sponsor Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., acknowledged the measure was imperfect, but warned that a failure to enact it would be "totally going in the wrong direction."

"We can come back in the next few years and add what we want," Rohrabacher said.

For years, legislators have had the luxury of debating theoretical scenarios about non-government human space travel. With the showcase flights of SpaceShipOne, which three times tapped its toe in the domain of space -- as well as the myriad of rocketeers lining up for test flights and promoting plans for space tourism businesses -- lawmakers suddenly are reckoning with a new space age.

"While the idea of a commercial human space flight industry might have seemed like a science fiction dream even a few years ago, the recent successful flights of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne show that the dream may be truly moving toward reality," said Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, who will not be returning to Congress next year.

"One of the challenges in developing this legislation has been in striking an appropriate balance between encouraging innovation and providing sufficient safety regulation of this emerging industry ... I think that the legislation before us represents the most feasible compromise possible in this session of Congress," Lampson said.

By a two-thirds majority, House members agreed, sending a bill to the Senate that basically would allow spaceflight participants to do what Mount Everest climbers, deep sea divers and other terrestrial thrill-seekers have been able to do without government permission. The bill requires the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation to set training and medical standards for crew members and passengers flying private spaceships. In addition, the legislation requires the FAA to obtain space flight participants' written consent to fly as well as a waiver of liability.

The bill also requires the agency to notify anyone participating in a space launch of all flight risks and warn that the government has not certified the safety of the vehicle.

Opponents of the measure were most alarmed by a clause that prohibits the Secretary of Transportation, who oversees the FAA, from restricting the design or operation of a launch vehicle unless there have been safety problems during flight.

"I don't want to see people dead from a space experiment, and then the federal government comes in to regulate," said bill opponent Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Countered Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who chairs the House Committee on Science: "This industry is at the stage when it is the preserve of visionaries and daredevils and adventurers. These are people who will fly at their own risk to try out new technologies. These are people who do not expect and should not expect to be protected by the government. Such protection would only stifle innovation."

Even before SpaceShipOne had completed two sub-orbital hops that clinched a $10 million prize, a deal for a commercial SpaceShipTwo already had been announced. Flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic Airways and the Virgin Group in London, inked a deal to license SpaceShipOne technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a partnership of Rutan's Scaled Composites and financier Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. Branson wants a fleet of spaceships, capable of carrying at least five people each, to fly jet-setters into the edge of space. More than 70,000 people have signed up to reserve a seat, which initially will cost about $200,000.

"It seems to me kind of silly to regulate Burt Rutan's vehicle, which has flown three times, as if it was a Boeing 747," Boehlert said. "If we regulate it that way, then his craft will never evolve into the equivalent of a 747."

The bill's biggest boost for private space travel actually has little to do with whom, if anyone, is aboard the spaceships. The legislation directs the Secretary of Transportation to create a streamlined certification process for experimental sub-orbital reusable ships -- a measure intended to spark more technological innovation and testing of private spaceships.

What is proving to be even more daunting than creating commercially available space transportation is laying the regulatory framework to launch the industry. The controversial bill, which was expected to have little resistance in the Senate, was tabled Saturday. Senators will have just one last chance in December to approve the legislation before it expires along with the 2004 post-election Congress.

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Space Race 2 is a series by UPI exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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