House Science Committee Chairwoman Johnson and Ranking Member Lucas Urge Biden to Rescind Proposal to Give Authority Over Commercial Space Accidents

SpaceShipTwo fuselage. (Credit: NTSB)

WASHINGTON (House Science Committee PR) – Today, Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) sent a letter [see below] to President Biden expressing their concerns regarding the Administration’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for commercial space accident investigation that was issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“Responsibilities and authorities for space accident investigation are to be determined by congressional action, as reflected in Title 51 of the United States Code, not through proposed regulations that are outside of established authorities,” said Chairwoman Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Lucas (R-OK) in the letter. “The NTSB’s proposed rulemaking is inconsistent with statutory authorities, existing interagency agreements and regulations, and it is plainly unlawful.”

The Committee leaders continued, “While we share the NTSB’s desire to promote safety, we are concerned that the NTSB’s proposed rulemaking on commercial space accident investigation contravenes existing agreements and statutory authorities including those related to commercial space launch and reentry activities represented in Title 51 United States Code Chapter 509 on Commercial Space Launch Activities and on human spaceflight accident investigation under Title 51 United States Code Chapter 707, Human Space Flight Independent Investigation Commission.”

A full copy of the letter can be found below.


April 6, 2022

The Honorable Joseph R. Biden
President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Biden:

As the Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, we write to express our concerns regarding the Administration’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for commercial space accident investigation, as issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).1 Responsibilities and authorities for space accident investigation are to be determined by congressional action, as reflected in Title 51 of the United States Code, not through proposed regulations that are outside of established authorities. The NTSB’s proposed rulemaking is inconsistent with statutory authorities, existing interagency agreements and regulations, and it is plainly unlawful.

Spaceflight is an area of United States national leadership and is of increasing importance to the national security and economic growth of our country. Rocketry is complex and sending spacecraft, especially humans, into space remains high risk. Ongoing improvements in the safety of such operations is foundational to the continuing growth, success, and leadership of our civil and commercial space activities.

The NTSB has contributed important skill and insight to commercial spaceflight accident investigation over previous decades. The Board’s experience is an asset to such investigative processes. While we share the NTSB’s desire to promote safety, we are concerned that the NTSB’s proposed rulemaking on commercial space accident investigation contravenes existing agreements and statutory authorities including those related to commercial space launch and reentry activities represented in Title 51 United States Code Chapter 509 on Commercial Space Launch Activities and on human spaceflight accident investigation under Title 51 United States Code Chapter 707, Human Space Flight Independent Investigation Commission. Please see attachment A for more information.

We insist that these are not minor issues that can be clarified with an updated proposed rule. They are fundamental conflicts that undermine the entire NPRM. If implemented, the additional duplicative and redundant requirements would confuse operators and lead to unnecessary reporting burdens that, as one commentor stated, could “…harm the national interest and stunt the growth of this emerging industry.”2 At a time when our national and economic security increasingly depend on space and innovation, the Federal Government should seriously assess proposals that could stifle our national progress.

As the Committee of jurisdiction,3 we look forward to working with our colleagues in Congress and in the Administration and will continue to examine the overall commercial space accident investigation framework, identify changes that may be needed to strengthen the framework, and provide appropriate direction in law under Title 51 of the U.S. Code. We reiterate that this rulemaking is plainly unlawful and we urge you to terminate any further action and rescind the proposed rule.

Sincerely,

Eddie Bernice Johnson
Chairwoman
Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Frank Lucas
Ranking Member
Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

1 https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/11/16/2021-24766/commercial-space-investigations, Docket No. NTSB-2021-0008.

2 Crutchfield, Allison, Sr. Manager, Regulatory Affairs, SpaceX; Public Comment on NTSB NPRM, NTSB-2021-0008, January 18, 2022.

3 “Astronautical research and development, including resources, personnel, equipment, and facilities” and “Outer space, including exploration and control thereof”. House Rule X(1)(p)(2)&(12)