Senate passes bill to aid commercial space launches

The Senate passed a bill Thursday that would give commercial space launchers more time to get licenses from the Department of Transportation and obtain insurance assistance.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) introduced H.R. 3547, the Space Launch Liability Indemnification Extension Act, which extends through Dec. 31, 2014, the application deadline for licenses with respect to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) requirement to pay third-party claims in excess of a commercial space launcher's insurance coverage.

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The bill extends the current liability scheme for commercial space launch companies, which many see as a needed step to keep these companies competitive. Under current rules, companies buy insurance to cover up to $500 million of damages to third parties due to failed space launches.

The government pays anything above that amount, up to $2.7 billion, a level that rises with inflation. After that, the company is on the hook for any damages over $2.7 billion.

The House passed the bill earlier this month in a 376-5 vote. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) added an amendment, meaning the bill will head back to the House before being signed into law by President Obama.

The Senate passed the bill through a unanimous consent agreement that was requested by Nelson, a former astronaut.