Florida bill says companies like SpaceX retain ownership of fallen hardware
Four astronauts splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico on May 2, 2021, completing SpaceX’s first commercial crew long-duration mission (168 days) aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule – Crew Dragon Resilience – shed parts on its way down, purposely ejecting the exterior panels to expose and deploy parachutes. These ocean-cast doors may appear discarded, but – once a new bill becomes law – such artifacts will remain the property of the “spaceflight entity,” in this case SpaceX. That’s according to the new Spaceflight Assets bill, affirmed by Florida’s legislature on April 26. The bill, which had the support of SpaceX, is now awaiting signature of Florida governor Ron DeSantis. When enacted, the law will go into effect on July 1.
A description of the bill states that it:
Provides spaceflight entity retains ownership of spaceflight asset after launch or upon reentry; requires person who finds item reasonably identifiable as spaceflight asset to report description and location to law enforcement; requires law enforcement to notify owner of spaceflight asset; authorizes owner of spaceflight asset to enter private property; prohibits person from appropriating spaceflight asset to his or her own use or refusing to surrender spaceflight asset to law enforcement or owner; provides criminal penalties.
The bill requires that anyone who finds “reasonably identifiable” spacecraft parts report them to local law enforcement and that the authorities then make a “reasonable effort” to notify the hardware’s owner. It even grants SpaceX, along with other entities involved in launching rockets and spacecraft, access to private property, if necessary, to recover discarded space-related artifacts. Anyone failing to surrender such artifacts could be charged with “misappropriation of a spaceflight asset,” a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine. Violators may even pay additional restitution if the hardware is lost or damaged. State representative Tyler Sirois, who wrote the bill legislation, said in a statement:
The recovery of spaceflight debris is an increasingly common issue in Florida. The return of these materials is necessary to evaluate vehicle safety and performance … As Florida continues to lead the nation in commercial aerospace, our laws need to evolve with the growing and unique demands of this industry.
Florida is the first state to pass legislation protecting spacecraft debris. Previously, the recovery of spacecraft parts fell under the terms of federal laws addressing the theft of government property, including vehicles belonging to NASA or the military. That was enforced by the Outer Space Treaty, when entered into practice in 1967. Parties of the treaty – including the United States – may retain ownership of their vehicles and parts, regardless of where they are found. It applies whether the materials were found by a return to Earth, washed up on foreign shorelines, or even in outer space. And it’s been considered as successful.
SpaceX lobbied for the passage of the Florida Spaceflight Assets law after at least two incidents where Dragon parts were found in the possession of state residents. In January 2020, a group of fishermen off the coast of Daytona Beach came across two drogue chutes and their associated hatch from a SpaceX capsule that was used for an inflight abort test. Eight months later, a different fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico recovered a panel from the first Crew Dragon [the historic Demo-2 mission] to return astronauts from the International Space Station in August 2020.
In at least one of those cases, a panel ended up in the private memorabilia collection belonging to a SpaceX investor.
But the bill applies to more than panels and parachutes. The legislation addresses any “crewed and un-crewed capsules, launch vehicles, parachutes and other landing aids, and any ancillary equipment that was attached to the launch vehicle during launch, orbit, or reentry.” Florida residents who locate the parts must “report the description and location of the spaceflight asset to a law enforcement agency having jurisdiction over the location.”
Boosters and stages don’t necessarily need the same protection. Rockets routinely drop stages on their way to orbit. Some burn up on re-entry if high enough in the atmosphere; the rest return to Earth where they (hopefully) won’t hit people. This is why launch pads are typically built far from crowded cities and tend to launch directly over the ocean. And if the space parts make it to the ocean, most are too heavy to float and will sink, or be flat out destroyed by the impact. This is what makes space travel so very expensive, and why commercial spaceflight companies are making efforts to recover (and keep) those stages.
Bottom line: The Spaceflight Assets bill affirmed by the Florida legislature on April 26, 2021, requires that anyone who finds “reasonably identifiable” spacecraft parts make a “reasonable effort” to notify the hardware’s owner. Commercial spaceflight companies and all entities involved in spacecraft launches will retain ownership of their fallen hardware, even after the mission is over.