On March 6, Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana introduced H.R. 1562, the Commercial Space Transportation Safety Act of 2019.  The bill’s text, which became available only recently, indicates that its main purpose is “to provide certain authority to the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate commercial space transportation accidents.” 

If enacted, the bill would make explicit the NTSB’s authority to investigate a commercial space transportation accident when there is:

  • a “known impact” of a commercial launch vehicle, its payload, or any of its components “outside of the hazard area designated for the launch or reentry of the vehicle”;
  • a fatality or significant injury of any individual, whether the individual was on board the vehicle at the time of the accident; and
  • substantial damage to property that is not associated with the launch activities and that is not located at the launch site.

The bill would also require the NTSB to enter into a memorandum of understanding with “any Government agency with the authority to certify a commercial space transportation operation.”  The memorandum would describe the conditions under which the certifying agency, rather than the NTSB, would investigate a commercial space transportation accident.

Although offering explicit statutory language spelling out the NTSB’s authority to investigate commercial space launch accidents is useful, Plane-ly Spoken readers should realize that the NTSB has been investigating these types of accidents — and assisting in other Federal agencies’ investigations — for more than 30 years.  For example:

  • the NTSB participated in the investigations of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger and the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accidents.
  • in 1993, the NTSB investigated a procedural anomaly associated with the launch of an expendable launch vehicle at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. See NTSB/SIR-93-02, July 26, 1993.

In addition, the NTSB conducted a major investigation of the in-flight breakup during a test flight of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket on October 31, 2014, near Koehn Dry Lake, California.  Included in an appendix to the resulting NTSB Aerospace Accident Report, dated July 28, 2015, is an NTSB General Counsel legal opinion describing the agency’s authority under 49 U.S.C. § 1131(a)(1)(F)(i) to investigate commercial space launch accidents.  The legal opinion was provided to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Committee of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Although it is too early to tell whether H.R. 1562 “has legs,” we will monitor and report on any further Congressional action on the bill.