Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Review of UK Draft Spaceflight Bill

 

The Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology recently conducted an enquiry into the UK Draft Spaceflight Bill[1] and have now published a report on the subject. Unfortunately, this review process, which usually takes three to four months has been interrupted by the surprise general election called by Prime Minister Theresa May, meaning the review lasted for only five weeks (and while it seems likely that the bill will be picked up in the new Parliament there is always the possibility that the new government, likely to be a Conservative one, won’t continue with the Spaceflight Bill.) There are two documents that have been released as a result of this truncated review; a briefing paper produced by the House of Commons Library[2] and the report of the Commons Select Committee[3].

The briefing paper is pretty much as you would expect from such a document. It covers the state of the UK space industry, looks at regulation of commercial spaceflight and spaceport in the United States and a few other key issues. Overall, it’s a pretty good introduction especially for those who aren’t space law specialists. The only real point of contention I have is that it states that the Moon Agreement is customary international law.[4] This is incorrect, the Moon Agreement is not customary international law despite what a handful of people might argue. There is a clear case to be made that the Outer Space Treaty with 104 ratifications is now customary international law, but the Moon Agreement has clearly been rejected by the international community as in nearly 40 years of existence it has struggled to more than 17 ratifications.[5]

As for the Commons Select Committee Report, it highlights a number of issues with the draft bill in its current state. I will discuss some of these issues below, but have already highlighted a few in my previous blog post on this bill. One issue worth highlighting that doesn’t warrant much development is the point that the proposed £10 million fund for developing commercial spaceflight capabilities and infrastructure is too small. For comparison Spaceport America has cost over $200 million[6] and has yet to see sufficient operations to even remotely justify that price tag (especially as most of that money was fronted by the New Mexico taxpayers…)

One major issue that is raised is that there are many delegated powers laid out in the bill, but they have not been elaborated on by the government. The report recommends draft or model regulations to be included should the bill be reintroduced in the next parliament so that Parliament can provide proper scrutiny. To quote from the report:

“we appreciate that the regulatory structure needs to be flexible, though it should not exclude proper parliamentary engagement, debate and scrutiny. If a spaceflight bill is introduced by the next Government, we suggest it re-examine the necessity of such wide-ranging powers and look again at what we believe to be the inappropriate delegations of power we have identified. Illustrative draft regulations should also be made available when any future Bill is published to assist Parliament’s scrutiny of its provisions.”

Another issue, as noted by both UKspace (the UK space industry trade association) and the British Interplanetary Society, is that many terms in the bill are used inconsistently with how they’re used within the space sector and/or are poorly defined. The term highlighted in the report is ‘spacecraft’ which is used in the bill to describe what would usually be called a ‘launch vehicle’ or launch system. I have previously highlighted the poor definition of terms such as ‘informed consent’ which is not adequately defined in the bill especially given its novel application here.

The Select Committee also questions the necessity for commercial spaceflight and spaceport regulation, especially for the UK. The government seemingly fails to make the case that there is sufficient demand to warrant all this effort. Indeed, while Virgin Galactic is often touted as a potential operator the company themselves seem less than enthusiastic about operations outside of the United States, at least at any time in the near future.[7] Additionally, as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have said in the past there are issues with the American International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) which will be essentially a barrier to importation of US systems such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo [8] (and as I argued in my earlier post on the bill ITAR will also potentially cause problems regarding informed consent as described in the bill.) However, the UK Space Agency reported to the Select Committee that they feel sufficiently confident that an arrangement with the United States can be made to allow UK operations of American spaceplanes.

Which raises another potential issue. Spaceplanes are potentially both aircraft and space objects, the 2014 CAA report on spaceplanes[9] highlights this issue, particularly with regard to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Union’s civil aviation body. If spaceplanes have to be regulated as aircraft there is no way that they can currently meet the required safety standards. Recognizing this the CAA’s 2014 report recommended coordination with EASA to regulate spaceplanes, essentially supporting creating some sort of experimental status or something similar to the US regime. However, nothing has been done in this arena and the UK government has failed to secure any written confirmation from EASA that it is able to classify these vehicles as ‘experimental’ craft under the existing EU aviation regulations. Brexit will complicate matters, especially as it is unclear what relationship the UK will have with EU bodies such as EASA in the future. For now, at least, EASA regulations and requirements have to still be fully complied with which could effectively act as a moratorium on commercial spaceflight operations in the UK for the foreseeable future (assuming of course there’s anyone actually ready to fly…)

As a space enthusiast, I am happy to see this bill and that the UK government is taking an active interest in space (plus it’s nice to be able to write about my own country for a change) however this bill is a bit of a mess to put it mildly. Hopefully it will be picked up in the new Parliament and the recommendations of the Select Committee will be listened to and we will see an improved draft bill introduced soon. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is said during the UK Space Conference at the end of the month, but given that this is a week before the general election I expect the UK Space Agency to be rather quiet, which while understandable (and required) is nonetheless disappointing.


[1] UK Draft Spaceflight Bill; also see my earlier post

[2] House of Commons Library Briefing Paper

[3] Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Report

[4]Commons briefing paper, page 7

[5] UNOOSA, Status of Treaties, 1 Jan 2017

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaceport_America

[7] TMRO episode, CEO of Virgin Galactic interviewed, asked about non-US operations

[8] CAA 2014 Report on Spaceplanes

[9] ibid

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