EDITORIAL: Commercial Launch Sector Gets What It Needs
The U.S. Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama Nov. 25, is a victory for one industry sector that only recently returned to U.S. territory and another, fledgling sector that finally appears on the verge of becoming a reality.
Perhaps most importantly, the measure extends by nine years the government indemnification regime that has traditionally protected U.S. launch companies against ruinous lawsuits filed by uninvolved third parties.
The indemnification regime, in which the government agrees to cover third-party damages in excess of the insured amount, was slated to expire at the end of 2016. Its extension was absolutely necessary to maintain the viability of an industry that effectively went overseas for other reasons a decade or so ago but has returned in recent years thanks largely to SpaceX.
The law also bars, for another 10 years, the government from imposing safety regulations on the commercial human spaceflight industry, the exception being rules that specifically respond to fatal accidents or near misses.
The extended grace period grants emerging suborbital spaceflight companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, the latter fresh from a successful unmanned flight and recovery of its reusable New Shepard vehicle, the latitude they need to complete vehicle development and build up a base of experience that will inform future regulations.
The original Senate version of the bill had proposed shorter extensions for both the learning period and indemnification regime, but the House provision prevailed in conference.
The final measure did not pass without some controversy.
Leading Democrats in the House opposed, albeit unsuccessfully, a provision that shields commercial human spaceflight operators against passenger lawsuits except in cases where negligence can be proved.
These protections, modeled after those that apply to other voluntary high-risk activities like recreational parachuting, are appropriate for commercial spaceflight as well.
Nobody knows when, or even if, recreational human spaceflight will make the transition to commercial viability, but the new law gives it a fighting chance, which is all the industry is asking for.