House approves bill to let space companies keep their rocket debris
Image via AP.

Still no word on whether the bill applies to extraterrestrial spacecraft.

The House of Representatives wants space companies to be able to keep their rocket parts, even if they’ve fallen from the sky.

The House overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday that would require debris to be returned by private citizens to space companies, should parts of rockets or reentry vehicles fall into someone’s property or get washed up on a beach.

HB 221, from Republican Rep. Tyler Sirois of Merritt Island, is in part a response to the rapidly evolving reusable spacecraft technology being pursued by rocket companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. They’re dropping rocket parts back to Earth on purpose, intending to retrieve and reuse them. The bill also is in part a recognition that past spaceship disasters have tragically showered debris across the Earth.

“As Florida continues to lead the nation in commercial aerospace, our laws need to evolve with the demands of this growing and unique industry. The recovery of space flight debris is an increasingly common issue in Florida. Current trends in the industry are based on the concept of reusability. Various components or assets of the the spacecraft used during both launch and reentry can be recovered and reused,” Sirois said.

The bill would require anyone who comes across debris that can be reasonably identified as pieces of a spacecraft to report it to law enforcement. It allows law enforcement and the company to come get it. It makes it criminal for someone to knowingly not turn over debris, or to try to sell it. The bill would not waive liability should falling debris damage something.

Sirois noted that debris from the tragic 2003 reentry disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia rained debris over Texas and Louisiana in 2004, and some people who found pieces tried to sell them on eBay and elsewhere. Likewise, he also noted that debris from the tragic 1986 explosion of space shuttle Challenger shortly after launch from Kennedy Space Center fell into the ocean, but then washed up on Florida beaches for years afterwards.

The House bill passed 117-1.

The no vote came from Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini of Howie-in-the-Hills. He was not happy that citizens would be required to report something to law enforcement or that private companies and law enforcement could be free to traipse onto private property to gather space “assets.”

“The bill allows police to enter your property without permission or a warrant. Additionally, it creates a new duty on citizens to ‘report’ information to the police,” Sabatini said afterward. “We should not be creating new duties on private citizens except in the most extreme of cases.”

The only other issue, raised before by Democratic Rep. Andrew Learned of Brandon in committees and again on the floor: Is the ownership right of retrieval limited only to Earth-bound companies, or also to, um, well …

“Is the space flight assets limited to those of terrestrial or extra-terrestrial origin?” Learned asked, saying he still hasn’t gotten a straight answer.

“Stellar question,” Sirois replied.

But he still didn’t give Learned an answer, saying, “We’re still working on the answer to that.”

Instead, he predicted, “your support for my bill would put me over the moon this afternoon.”

Republican Sen. Tom Wright of Port Orange has the companion bill, SB 936.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]


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