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The National Transportation Safety Board would have the power to investigate major space crashes under a bipartisan bill unveiled Tuesday.
Commercial space crashes where a person is killed, injured or if there is major property damage would be assigned to the NTSB, the independent federal agency that investigates crashes, in the new legislation (H.R. 8689) from top lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The bill would also require the NTSB to have an agreement with other government agencies to avoid confusion about authority.
The proposal follows previous pushback from the space industry and the Federal Aviation Administration to an NTSB effort to codify its authority to investigate space crashes. Blue Origin LLC, founded by Amazon.com Inc.‘s Jeff Bezos, called the NTSB’s plan “overly broad” and “duplicative.” Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc., founded by UK billionaire Richard Branson, said the plan’s “broad scope and undefined terms create uncertainty.”
“This bill will relieve the commercial space transportation sector of unintended burdens by ensuring that NTSB accident investigation resources are appropriately used in major accidents, not when minor mishaps occur,” Sam Graves (R-Mo.), ranking member on the panel, said in a statement Tuesday.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) introduced the bill with ranking member Graves, Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), and committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).
NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said the bill, which her agency supports, “is needed to clarify our role in commercial space.” Homendy said she has been meeting with all the space operators so they can get to know NTSB better, and she will visit Virgin Galactic on Wednesday.
“What we don’t want to do is get on the scene of a tragedy and figure out who’s doing what,” Homendy said in an interview.
Lawmakers will turn their attention to the reauthorization of the NTSB in the coming months and “clarifying NTSB’s role in commercial space transportation accidents must be a component of that effort,” Sam Graves said. The NTSB is seeking more money than in its current authorization, which expires Sept. 30 after being renewed in 2018.
The NTSB last year proposed regulations to create a formal framework for its authority and role in investigating commercial space transportation.
The FAA responded in comments on the NTSB proposal that the aviation agency “has statutory authority over all aspects of Commercial Space Launch Activities,” and asked NTSB to “reconsider” its proposal and “refocus on its current successful working relationship with the FAA.”
Homendy said the legislation clarifies the NTSB’s role, but the rulemaking is still needed since it would tell the industry which mishaps they need to report. The NTSB is also working with the FAA on updating a memorandum of agreement, “which is going really well,” she said.
Committee members for months have pushed to make sure NTSB has the authority to investigate crashes in all modes of transportation.
DeFazio said the new bill would ensure the NTSB “has the ability to oversee commercial space accidents independently of regulators, and uninhibited by politics, industry, costs, retribution, or censorship.”
“By protecting the NTSB’s independence and mandate to carry out unbiased investigations with safety recommendations, we will strengthen our nation’s transportation system for the modern era,” DeFazio said Tuesday.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org