Update to commercial space law stalled in Senate

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Surprise, surprise! It appears that several Senate Democrats and the trial lawyer organizations that back them are objecting to passage of an update to the 2004 Commercial Space Act that would extend the period that companies would be exempt from liability while they experiment with new spacecraft.

Some Democratic members of the House Science Committee opposed those provisions when the committee marked up a version of the bill in May. “This really is quite an indefensible provision,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) during discussion then regarding the federal jurisdiction clause of the House bill, arguing that the bill is “basically providing the launch industry with complete immunity from any civil action.”

The American Association for Justice, a legal organization formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, also spoke out against those sections of the bill in May. “Industries that lobby for immunity from accountability might as well hang up a sign saying they don’t trust themselves to be safe,” Linda Lipsen, chief executive of the association, said in a May 13 statement.

I really hate saying “I told you so!” but more than a decade ago, when the 2004 Commercial Space Act was passed, I opposed it because it gave the federal government far too much regulatory control over this very new and very experimental industry. Many industry people attacked me for doing so, saying that they needed this regulatory framework to raise capital.

Now the industry finds those regulations burdensome and is trying to get them eased, or waived temporarily. Not unexpectedly, there are vested interests in and out of Congress who don’t want those regulations eased. So, instead of focusing their energies on developing new technologies, the industry must instead spend money on lobbying and political dealmaking, which might get them some of what they want but will certainly also come with some political price that will be even more burdensome.

One comment

  • Edward

    From the article: “Industries that lobby for immunity from accountability might as well hang up a sign saying they don’t trust themselves to be safe.”

    Whatever Ms. Lipsen is smoking, I don’t want any; it clearly drains people of all intelligence.

    By definition, an experiment does something untried and may not work as intended. It is much less likely to work than an operational version, and even our operational rockets are considered to be so unsafe that they are launched over unoccupied and low-occupied areas, such as oceans and deserts. We even have escape systems for manned launches, because we (rightly) still don’t trust our rockets to not explode during launch.

    If the thinking in this article is the level of intelligence of our attorneys or is the thinking that we teach in our law schools, then we as a country have a serious problem. What was the thing that Shakespeare, in “King Henrey VI,” had a character say should be done to all the attorneys first ? Now we know why.

    On the other hand, Donna Edwards is a politician, and (with more than all due respect) this is the level of intelligence that I expect from that profession.

    Of course an experimental rocket is going to be less safe than our operational rockets. Of course the experimenters are going to try to be as safe with their experiments as they can, trying to reach the same or a better level of safety as the operational rockets. Unlike government development programs, commercial experimenters have a tremendous incentive to have successful experiments. Unsuccessful experiments can be even more expensive than a lawsuit (which really only enriches the attorneys*) that is supposed to punish a company for … what, trying something new and untried(?), and too many unsuccessful experiments can result in loss of new capital. Richard Branson has been fighting that battle for years, ever since his experiments informed him that he had a problem with the choice of fuel for SpaceShipTwo.

    Although I was not reading this blog at the time, it seems that I agree with Robert’s 2004 assessment. The federal regulatory framework is a long-term problem that the industry seems to have been willing to kick down the road in order to solve the short-term problem of raising capital.

    * Yes, I believe that the attorneys (The American Association for Justice**) would have liked to enrich themselves by representing the SpaceShipTwo pilots in a massive lawsuit against Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, the Mojave Air and Space Port, and anyone else they could have sued. They also realize that, just as with airlines for the first hundred years of manned flight, there will be deadly accidents with manned space travel, and they obviously want to enrich themselves from those tragedies, too.

    ** Why does this sound like a political action committee rather than an organization of professionals?

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