Science &Technology in Congress
Despite concerns raised by Administration officials, on June 18 the House Science Committee passed "The Commercial Space Act of 1997" (H.R. 1702). Following passage of the bill, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), committee chairman, stated, "We've made several changes in this bipartisan legislation to meet the Administration's concerns. I am prepared to resolve the Administration's two main concerns in exchange for a White House commitment of support for H.R. 1702." Much of the Administration's concerns dealt with the language of Title II which would update the "Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992" and streamline the licensing process. It was noted in the markup hearing, which lasted less than twenty minutes, that the White House would not provide the Committee with a formal statement on the H.R. 1702 until after the bill had passed.
The Department of State was conspicuously absent from the oversight conducted by the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee to prepare the bill for full committee vote. The table of witnesses otherwise included executive branch representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) expressed frustration at the lack of a response from the State Department to invitations to testify. To emphasize his ire, Rep. Rohrabacher placed a tent card at the witness table entitled, "State Department Representative" in case someone should show up. "Since the State Department is not here, and hasn't sent a written statement or even a letter, I assume they have no objections," stated the Congressman.
H.R. 1702 is a follow up to legislation proposed last year (H.R. 3936), which was stalled during negotiations in the Senate. The new bill includes five general provisions: 1) directs NASA to study commercial possibilities for the International Space Station; 2) amends the Commercial Space Launch Act to license commercial space transportation vehicles to reenter Earth's atmosphere and return space payloads to Earth; 3) encourages policies to secure the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) as the world's standard; 4) streamlines the licensing process for remote sensing satellites; and, 5) requires the government to procure commercial space transportation services.
Language within the bill also encourages NASA to purchase space science and earth science data from commercial providers (Sections 105 and 202 respectively) while still satisfying NASA's "scientific requirements." In addition, Section 202 requires that NASA conduct a study to determine the extent to which the baseline scientific requirements of Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE) can be met by commercial providers. The Committee's interest in encouraging NASA to purchase scientific data from commercial providers grew out of the 104th Congress' interest in streamlining the MTPE program, and encouraging privatization and commercialization wherever possible.
Title II of H.R. 1702 deals with changes to the "Land Remote Sensing Act of 1992," and is the source of the greatest opposition from federal agencies with a vested interest, most notably the Departments of Defense and State. Section 206 of the bill outlines the notification process that the Department of Commerce must follow in order to approve a commercial license to launch a remote sensing satellite. Technological innovations have allowed commercial companies to improve the resolution capability of remote sensing satellites, thereby allowing for sharper more enhanced images. The State Department and Department of Defense (DOD) have natural anxieties over how such improved imagery could be utilized by adversaries and during times of military conflict. For this reason, the licensing process will be closely monitored by both departments.
In response to national security concerns, the House Science Committee has included language in Section 206 that requires both the State Departmen and DOD to publish a notice outlining all international obligations and national security concerns in Commerce Business Daily. In addition, both departments will be required to notify the Department of Commerce within 60 days of a license application if that application should be modified or rejected based on national security or international obligations concerns. If no notice is received within 60 days, the Department of Commerce may approve the license and assume that it is consistent with existing U.S. interests. It is unlikely that the Administration will allow H.R. 1702 to pass into law without closely analyzing this portion of the bill.