Disagreement Stalls Space Tourism Bill

Legislation to regulate the infant space tourism industry — invigorated by the successful flights of a privately financed manned rocket — has been stalled by disagreements over how much protection to offer potential space travelers.

Industry officials and some lawmakers say thrill seekers who want to pay six figures to experience outer space must do so at their own risk, like the pilot of SpaceShipOne (search) who streaked over California's Mojave Desert (search) to capture a $10 million prize last week.

"Regulation for proven technology is a way of ensuring public safety. Regulation in a developmental area like commercial space is a means of strangling enterprise," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., sponsor of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (search) that passed the House in March.

But Senate Commerce Committee negotiators working on a version of the bill for Senate passage late last week added language calling for crew and passenger safety. Current law on commercial space flights protects only public health and property and the country's national security and foreign policy interests.

Rohrabacher and industry officials said there was no way inventors building rocket ships could guarantee the safety of passengers they hope to blast into space beginning in 2007. Several senators raised questions and the bill never made it to a vote.

"You're fundamentally changing this legislation from fly at your own risk, but informed risk, to where it's the government's job to protect the safety of the people in these vehicles. And it's just not possible to do that right now," said James Muncy, president of PoliSpace (search), a consulting firm that works with companies on suborbital flight.

Senate and House staffers said Wednesday they hope to meet again next week to iron out the differences and write a bill that can pass the Senate when Congress meets for a lame-duck session in November.

"They're tentatively going to meet next week with the House and look to clarify it and talk then," said David Wonnenberg, spokesman for the Senate Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Senate staffers said they wanted language to protect passenger safety but thought it could be written without stifling risk-taking enterprise.

While laws exist to regulate private-sector space endeavors such as satellite launches, there is no legal jurisdiction for regulating commercial human spaceflight. Rohrabacher's bill gives regulatory authority to the Federal Aviation Administration's (search) Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

The bill gives the office the authority to issue experimental permits that can be obtained more quickly than licenses, and requires regulations for crew pertaining to training and medical conditions. Space tourists would have to be informed of the risks involved.