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Science / Space
Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Finders Not Keepers? Florida Considering Ban On Keeping Found Spacecraft Parts

The Mercury Atlas (MA-1) hatch appears on the wall in American Space Museum in Titusville
Mingmei Li / Fresh Take Florida
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The Mercury Atlas (MA-1) hatch appears on the wall in American Space Museum in Titusville on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The hatch was found by Gene Hummel in a scrap yard several years after the spacecraft exploded after takeoff in 1960, and he donated the it to the museum.

Under the House and Senate bills, violators would risk a first-degree misdemeanor charge and could face up to one year in jail, one year of probation and a fine of up to $1,000.

Lawmakers in Florida, where private firm SpaceX is increasingly launching missions to outer space, are considering a bill to add criminal penalties for anyone who finds a spacecraft or parts of one and tries to keep it.

The proposals would require anyone in Florida who finds a spacecraft or reasonably identifiable parts to notify law enforcement officers. They also would require police or sheriff's deputies to try to find the object’s rightful owner.

The bills would protect spacecraft, satellites, parachutes or other landing aids, and any other equipment attached to the launch vehicle during launch, orbit, reentry, or recovery. The plan reflects the eagerness for Florida's "Space Coast" to remain the dominant player for mission launches by the emerging private space industry.

Wrenches and nuts appear in the American Space Museum in Titusville
Mingmei Li / Fresh Take Florida
Wrenches and nuts appear in the American Space Museum in Titusville on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

More flights are taking off from Florida than from anywhere else in the world — and bill sponsor Sen. Tom Wright, R-Port Orange, said he wants it to stay that way.

“That’s one of the things that we are all working hard to do, is to attract more space companies and keep Florida the spaceport of the world,” Wright said during a committee meeting last week where the panel voted for the bill unanimously.

Under the House and Senate bills, violators would risk a first-degree misdemeanor charge and could face up to one year in jail, one year of probation and a fine of up to $1,000. The crime would be “misappropriation of a spaceflight asset.”

A SRB pilot parachute appears in the American Space Museum in Titusville
Mingmei Li / Fresh Take Florida
A SRB pilot parachute appears in the American Space Museum in Titusville on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Those could be stacked on existing theft penalties – up to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine at its worst – that already can be assessed against someone for trying to keep spacecraft parts without permission, according to a Senate analysis of the legislation.

The bill would apply to parts found on private or public property. It also gives law enforcement permission to enter private property to recover parts if officers believe it would be necessary to avoid danger to the public or could prevent damage or destruction of the equipment.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, which lobbied for the bills, accounted for 25 of last year’s 31 successful flights from Florida’s Space Coast, tourism officials said. The number of overall flights broke a record set in 1966. There could be as many as 53 launches this year.

This new generation of space technology reuses some spacecraft parts, said Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, one of the bill’s other sponsors. Finding those after a mission can save companies money and time – but not if they’re picked up by memorabilia-seekers.

A piece of Rockwell flexible reusable surface insulation appears in the American Space Museum in Titusville
Mingmei Li / Fresh Take Florida
A piece of Rockwell flexible reusable surface insulation appears in the American Space Museum in Titusville on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Last August, about two dozen boaters approached too close to watch the splashdown of a manned SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule off the coast of Pensacola after a mission to the International Space Station. The Coast Guard said boaters ignored orders to stay out of the area.

“It points to the danger that exists with the increased amount of companies that are going to be launching off of our coasts,” said Elisha Converse, a legislative assistant to Wright. “People get closer than they should and probably feel more comfortable than they should touching or taking any of these items.” He said the bills were a proactive measure to prevent thefts, more than a reaction to them.

Space parts can be dangerous, laden with toxic chemicals. The legislation would affirm that the parts belong to the company that launched them unless they expressly announce they were abandoning interests in them.

Despite more launches, finding or stealing spacecraft pieces is rare, according to Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research. But it happens.

Karan Conklin stands in front of a console
Mingmei Li / Fresh Take Florida
Karan Conklin, the executive director of the American Space Museum & Space Walk of Fame, explains how Atlas vehicle power and batteries work to visitors on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Titusville.

At least twice in the past five years, people approached the American Space Museum in Titusville to appraise protective heat-shield tiles from shuttle Challenger, which exploded over the ocean after liftoff in 1986, collections analyst Charles Jeffrey said.

“I tell them to do one of two things,” he said. “Call NASA and turn in those parts, or take them back in the ocean where you got them.”

Similarly, federal prosecutors filed charges against people caught trying to sell debris from the shuttle Columbia after it broke apart during re-entry over eastern Texas and western Louisiana in 2003.

SpaceX is lobbying for the bill, but the entire competitive space industry is supportive of it, SpaceX lobbyist Taylor Biehl said. He declined to discuss the bills further.

Floridia residents should be aware of laws regarding space parts, said Robert Pearlman, the editor of space history and memorabilia collection website collectSPACE. If someone finds debris they think may be spacecraft parts, it’s better to turn it in than hide it in the garage, he said.

“[Authorities] are happy to cooperate with the public in making sure these pieces go to the right place,” he said. “But be prepared – if it is from a spacecraft, it's not going to be a situation where you're likely going to be able to retain ownership.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at hdean@freshtakeflorida.com.

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