House Republicans introduced legislation Wednesday that would make operating easier for private companies launching space operations.
If enacted, the bill would streamline the licensing and regulatory processes involved in launching commercial satellites and close a regulatory gap that prevents companies from investing in business opportunities in satellite servicing, commercial space stations and lunar landers.
The Office of Space Commerce would license spacecraft instead of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Obtaining a license to launch a satellite from NOAA sometimes took years, and the new bill automatically grants a permit if the Office of Space Commerce doesn’t make a ruling within 60 days.
“This transformative legislation declares that America is open for business in outer space,” Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said in a press statement.
“The bill establishes a favorable legal and policy environment for free enterprise with maximum certainty and minimum burden for stakeholders. With this innovative legislation, we position the American space industry as a leader,” said Smith, who introduced the bill.
The bill has bipartisan support and is expected to breeze through the committee’s Thursday markup hearing. Opponents of the legislation worry it hands too much authority to the Office of Space Commerce, which is a relatively small department with few employees and a limited budget.
Two Democrats Reps., Ed Perlmutter of Colorado and Derek Kilmer of Washington, joined their Republican colleagues to co-sponsor the legislation.
The bill comes days after Houston company Axiom Space announced plans to launch the first-ever commercial space station into orbit in 2020.
U.S. plans to return astronauts to Earth’s orbit are entirely dependent on private companies, some of which are scheduled to launch by the end of this year. Boeing and SpaceX are both competing to be the first private company to send humans to the International Space Station. SpaceX has a human test flight planned for October 2017, while Boeing has a flight scheduled for May 2018.
NASA wants these private companies to be the space agency’s “taxi service” to carry crews to the ISS. Once this service is established, the agency will refocus on long range deep space exploration. Astronauts began installing adapters that allow commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS last August. This affords NASA less expensive options to resupply the station.
The legislation boosts NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is intended to pay these companies to ferry astronauts to the ISS. This will temper the U.S.’s sole reliance on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the station.
SpaceX has already successfully resupplied the ISS seven times, but one SpaceX resupply mission in June 2015 resulted in an explosion and a total loss of the spacecraft. The private company Orbital Sciences is also under contract with the space agency to resupply the ISS.
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