Update to commercial space law stalled in Senate

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.