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President Signs FY2016 NDAA, Commercial Space Bills Into Law

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Nov-2015
Updated: 25-Nov-2015 09:43 PM

President Obama signed several bills into law today (November 25) including the FY2016 National Defense Authorization (NDAA) and the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.

On a day when many Americans are getting ready for the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow, the President was reassuring the nation about our security, fulfilling what he agrees is the "silly" tradition of pardoning a turkey, and signing six pieces of legislation.

The President vetoed an earlier version of the NDAA in part because of how Congress dealt with defense budget issues.  After he and Congress reached a deal on the budget, Congress passed a revised version on November 10, avoiding a showdown over whether to attempt to override the veto.  Although there were still two policy issues the President cited as reasons for his veto (that the bill does not include needed reforms and does not allow the closing of Guantanamo), he obviously decided to sign the new version (S. 1356) nonetheless. 

Among other things, the bill limits the number of Russian RD-180 rocket engines that the United Launch Alliance (ULA) can obtain for launching national security satellites.  The NDAA is an authorization bill that sets policy and recommends funding levels. Only appropriations committees actually provide funds and that step has yet to take place.  Strictly speaking, appropriations committees are not supposed to set policy, but powerful members of the Senate Appropriations Committee disagree with the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on this issue and a battle is brewing in particular between SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), a high ranking member of the appropriations committee.  ULA builds its rockets in Decatur, AL.  That is one of many issues that could hold up agreement on a full-year appropriations bill to replace the short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on December 11.

The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, H.R. 2262, cleared Congress on November 16.  It affects a broad range of commercial space issues, but is getting a lot of publicity because of a provision that grants property rights to materials that U.S. companies mine from asteroids.  The bill does not allow U.S. companies to own asteroids, only whatever materials they mine from them.  Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the Moon and other celestial bodies, like asteroids, are not subject to national appropriation and governments are required to authorize and supervise the actions of non-government entities (e.g. companies).

H.R. 2262 includes an important phrase that the rights must be consistent with applicable law and U.S. international obligations, which include treaties.   The exact wording of the provision is:  "A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use,  and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States."  It remains to be seen how the other 102 countries that are signatories to the Outer Space Treaty will react, but U.S. companies at least have some assurance that the U.S. government will back them.

Officials of Planetary Resources, Inc,, one of the companies that plans to mine asteroids, issued a press release today calling the bill "the single greatest recognition of property rights in history," and a point in history where "we were able to establish a permanent foothold in space."  They thanked a number of members of Congress by name and their press release includes supportive quotes from five of them: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Patty Murry (D-WA), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA).  Planetary Resources is headquartered in Redmond, Washington.

The bill has many other provisions.  Among them it --

  • Formally extends operation of the International Space Station from 2020 through 2024.  President Obama announced last year that he was extending it until then, but this makes it law.  Canada and Russia have agreed with the extension; Japan and Europe have not publicly endorsed the extension yet.
  • Extends the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight through September 30, 2023.  Under current law, the prohibition on the FAA promulgating new regulations for the commercial human spaceflight business would have expired on March 31, 2016.
  • Extends third party indemnification for launch services companies through September 30, 2025.  Under current law, the authority for the FAA to indemnify commercial space launch companies from certain amounts of claims from the uninvolved public in the event of a launch accident would have expired on December 31, 2016.
  • Directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to assess and recommend approaches for oversight of commercial non-governmental activities in space.  The 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities.
  • Provides a use policy for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS).  SLS may be used for missions to extend human presence beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), for other payloads that can benefit from its unique capabilities, for government or educational payloads consistent with NASA's mission to explore beyond LEO, and for "compelling circumstances" as determined by the NASA Administrator.
 

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