The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984

The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 is a United States federal law authored to facilitate the private enterprise of the commercialisation of space and space technology. Let’s recall that a privately held company, private company, or close corporation is a business company owned either by non-governmental organisations or by a relatively small number of shareholders or company members which does not offer or trade its company stock (shares) to the general public on the stock market exchanges, but rather the company’s stock is offered, owned and traded or exchanged privately or over-the-counter. The H.R. 3942 legislation was enacted by the 98th Congressional session and signed by the 40th President of the United States Ronald Reagan on October 30, 1984.

The Act of Congress, a statute enacted by the United States Congress (it can either be a Public Law, relating to the general public, or a Private Law, relating to specific institutions or individuals), set forth the quest to acquire innovative equipment and services offered by entrepreneurial ventures from the information technology services, remote sensing technology, and telecommunications industries. The Act recognised the United States private sector as having the capability to develop commercial launch vehicles, orbital satellites, and operate private launch sites and services.

The Act also assigned the duties of overseeing and coordinating commercial launches, issuing of licenses and permits, and promotion of safety standards to the Secretary of Department of Transportation. The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT or DOT) is a federal Cabinet department of the U.S. government concerned with transportation. It was established by an act of Congress on October 15, 1966, and began operation on April 1, 1967. It is governed by the United States Secretary of Transportation.

Law of the United States of America

The law of the United States of America comprises many levels of codified and uncodified forms of law, of which the most important is the United States Constitution, the foundation of the federal government of the United States of America. The Constitution sets out the boundaries of federal law, which consists of Acts of Congress, treaties ratified by the Senate, regulations promulgated by the executive branch, and case law originating from the federal judiciary. The United States Code is the official compilation and codification of general and permanent federal statutory law.

Federal law and treaties, so long as they are in accordance with the Constitution, pre-empt conflicting state and territorial laws in the fifty U.S. states and in the territories. However, the scope of federal pre-emption is limited because the scope of federal power is not universal. In the dual-sovereign system of American federalism (actually tripartite because of the presence of Indian reservations), states are the plenary sovereigns, each with their own constitution, while the federal sovereign possesses only the limited supreme authority enumerated in the Constitution. Indeed, states may grant their citizens broader rights than the federal Constitution as long as they do not infringe on any federal constitutional rights.

The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984

In the 1970s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began to look for ways to outsource the use of its launching facilities and services to private companies such as COMSAT (Communications Satellite Corporation), RCA (Radio Corporation of America), and Western Union. This search was due to the fact that maintaining, modifying, launching, and other duties required to launch expendable launch vehicles cost upwards of billions of American dollars. Upon realising the economic benefits of utilising private space companies, the House Science and Technologies Commission, a committee of the United States House of Representatives which has jurisdiction over non-defense federal scientific research and development (and more specifically, the committee has complete jurisdiction over NASA), proposed H.R. 3942 which eventually became Public Law 98-575, or the Commercial Space Act of 1984.

The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 states that “The Congress finds and declares that (1) the peaceful uses of outer space continue to be of great value and to offer benefits to all mankind; (2) private applications of space technology have achieved a significant level of commercial and economic activity, and offer the potential for growth in the future, particularly in the United States; (3) new and innovative equipment and services are being sought, created, and offered by entrepreneurs in telecommunications, information services, and remote sensing technology; (4) the private sector in the United States has the capability of developing and providing private satellite launching and associated services that would complement the launching and associated services now available from the United States Government; (5) the development of commercial launch vehicles and associated services would enable the United States to retain its competitive position internationally, thereby contributing to the national interest and economic well-being of the United States; (6) provision of launch services by the private sector is consistent with the national security interests and foreign policy interests of the United States and would be facilitated by stable, minimal, and appropriate regulatory guidelines that are fairly and expeditiously applied; and (7) the United States should encourage private sector launches and associated services and, only to the extent necessary, regulate such launches and services in order to ensure compliance with international obligations of the United States and to protect the public health and safety, safety of property, and national security interests and foreign policy interests of the United States”.

The Act then continues with the PURPOSES: “It is therefore the purpose of this Act (1) to promote economic growth and entrepreneurial activity through utilization of the space environment for peaceful purposes; (2) to encourage the United States private sector to provide launch vehicles and associated launch services by simplifying and expediting the issuance and transfer of commercial launch licenses and by facilitating and encouraging the utilization of Government-developed space technology; and (3) to designate an executive department to oversee and coordinate the conduct of commercial launch operations, to issue and transfer commercial launch licenses authorizing such activities, and to protect the public health and safety, safety of property, and national security interests and foreign policy interests of the United States”.

Among the DEFINITIONS listed in the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, let’s note that “(3) launch property means propellants, launch vehicles and components thereof, and other physical items constructed for or used in the launch preparation or launch of a launch vehicle; (4) launch services means those activities involved in the preparation of a launch vehicle and its payload for launch and the conduct of a launch; (5) launch site means the location on Earth from which a launch takes place, as defined in any license issued or transferred by the Secretary under this Act, and includes all facilities located on a launch site which are necessary to conduct a launch; (6) launch vehicle means any vehicle constructed for the purpose of operating in, or placing a payload in, outer space and any suborbital rocket; (7) payload means an object which a person undertakes to place in outer space by means of a launch vehicle, and includes subcomponents of the launch vehicle specifically designed or adapted for that object”.

Section 11 of the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 on EMERGENCY ORDERS enounces that “The Secretary may terminate, prohibit, or suspend immediately the launch of a launch vehicle or the operation of a launch site which is licensed under this Act if the Secretary determines that such launch or operation is detrimental to the public health and safety, safety of property, or any national security interest or foreign policy interest of the United States”.

Section 15 of the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 on USE OF GOVERNMENT PROPERTY adds that “The Secretary shall take such actions as may be necessary to facilitate and encourage the acquisition (by lease, sale, transaction in lieu of sale, or otherwise) by the private sector of launch property of the United States which is excess or is otherwise not needed for public use and of launch services, including utilities, of the United States which are otherwise not needed for public use. The amount to be paid to the United States by any person who acquires launch property or launch services, including utilities, shall be established by the agency providing the property or service, in consultation with the Secretary. In the case of acquisition of launch property by sale or transaction in lieu of sale, the amount of such payment shall be the fair market value. In the case of any other type of acquisition of launch property, the amount of such payment shall be an amount equal to the direct costs (including any specific wear and tear and damage to the property) incurred by the United States as a result of the acquisition of such launch property. In the case of any acquisition of launch services, including utilities, the amount of such payment shall be an amount equal to the direct costs (including salaries of United States civilian and contractor personnel) incurred by the United States as a result of the acquisition of such launch services”.

Concluding remarks

While the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 opened the doors for private space flight for the first time in the United States of America’s history, it proved to be less than adequate in addressing all of the legal and regulatory issues associated with private space travel. Consequently, the act was amended twice. The first of these amendments came in November of 1988, only four years after the act was originally passed, and essentially made it easier for contractors to obtain both licenses and launch insurance.  The second of these amendments was signed into law in December of 2004, and further cements the process for licensing space launch vehicles, and further allows paying passengers to fly into space at their own risk on commercial flights.

As monumental as the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 and its amendments were to the growth of space flight in the private sector, a number of other laws have been passed in the intervening years since the birth of the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984.  For example, President Bill Clinton signed the Commercial Space Act into law in 1998, and the Commercial Space Transportation Competitiveness Act in 2000.