Paying passengers would be able to blast into space aboard privately operated rocket ships under legislation the House passed Saturday.

Propelled by last month's successful flights of a privately financed manned rocket over California's Mojave Desert (search), the bill by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., would give the Federal Aviation Administration (search) authority to regulate commercial human spaceflight.

No such jurisdiction now exists, even though airline mogul Richard Branson (search) has already announced plans to offer six-figure commercial space flights by 2007, and thrill-seekers have begun plunking down deposits.

The bill was passed by a 269-120 vote but only after a contentious debate Friday over how much protection lawmakers should provide potential space tourists. A two-thirds vote was required for passage. It was uncertain whether the Senate would take up the bill before Congress adjourns.

"After being informed of the risks, people can and should be able to decide to buy a ticket and achieve their lifelong dream of flying into space even though they know that it is a risky proposition," Rohrabacher said.

An earlier version of the bill passed by the House in March required only that space tourists be informed of the risks involved in their travel.

Following negotiations between the House Science Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee, the new version would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to begin issuing regulations to protect spaceflight passengers and crew, but only eight years after enactment of the bill.

The FAA also might issue regulations to protect the safety of passengers and crew before then if someone should be killed or injured seriously or some unplanned event should occur on a space flight.

That wasn't enough for some Democrats.

"I don't want to see people dead from a space experiment, and then the federal government comes in to regulate," said Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's senior Democrat.

Rohrabacher contended too much regulation would "strangle this industry and drive these entrepreneurs offshore."