Congress hovers over commercial space like a vulture

We’re here to help you: A House subcommittee held hearings yesterday to consider updating the Commercial Space Launch Act that regulates the commercial space tourism industry.

Forgive me if I am pessimistic about anything Congress might do. So far, every time they have updated the law Congress has increased the regulatory regimen, making it harder and more expensive for these companies to get started. Consider these words from Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee:

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I want to fly as a passenger one day. However, my enthusiasm is tempered by the recognition that there are number of questions about this growing industry that remain unanswered, and issues that need to be resolved. I raise them because they are questions of national policy and safety that deserve our due diligence and that help us, as Members of Congress, to fulfill our responsibilities to the American taxpayers.” [emphasis mine]

The only “issues” that anyone has noted needing resolving have been the clumsy regulatory requirements imposed by the 2004 amendments to the Space Launch Act, requiring Congress to scramble to revise them temporarily. Nor would I expect Edwards to want make those requirements any simpler or less imposing. Consider this editorial in Aviation Week on February 3, written by her fellow Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). In it, Johnson and Edwards fret over the safety of any astronauts launched on the new privately built commercial spacecraft, like Dragon, and demand that Congress move in to make sure all is well.

In the years since the shuttle orbiters were retired, NASA has been making progress in developing follow-on systems. Last November, a request for proposals (RFP) for the development and certification of commercial crew transportation systems was released.

Before the RFP was finalized, the ranking minority member of the space subcommittee, Donna Edwards of Maryland, and I wrote the NASA administrator, voicing our concerns about the document. One of those was that the draft solicitation ran counter to the CAIB’s [Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s] finding that crew safety be given priority over other evaluation factors. We expressed deep concern that Congress was being asked to invest taxpayer dollars in the development of a U.S. human spaceflight system that does not make crew safety the No. 1 priority, as recommended by the CAIB.

Let me rephrase what Edwards and Johnson are really saying: “You’ve got a great little company here. It would really be a shame if something bad happened to it. In fact, why don’t you pay us some protection money so we can guarantee nothing bad will happen to it.”

What these Democrats really want to do, undoubtedly with a lot of Republican help, is to either squelch these new companies so that the old established companies that already exist in their districts can continue to dominate — and continue to dump campaign contributions into the pockets of these elected officials — or to squeeze some campaign contributions from these new companies in order to convince Congress not to squelch them.

All in all, it stinks. If these elected officials really wanted to help the country, they would instead be doing everything they could to eliminate as much government interference in this industry as they can. Other than protecting innocent third parties from falling debris from a failed launch, the government should stay out. If a private citizen has the cash and the willingness to buy a ticket to fly in space, and a private company has the rocket and spacecraft willing to fly them, it is none of Congress’s business what these parties agree to.

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7 comments

  • curmudgeoninchief

    To paraphrase “If a private citizen has the cash and the willingness to buy a ticket to fly in (the atmosphere), and a private company has the (aircraft) willing to fly them, it is none of Congress’s business what these parties agree to.” Doesn’t sound likely, does it? In fact, Congress has regulated the bejeezus out of commercial air travel. Pick your own example.

    It is true space travel is new, but the old forces are at play here. Oxes are being gored, rice bowls are being robbed, and Congress Must Act! Benign neglect would be a nice option, but seems unlikely to me.

  • juandos

    Will this seemingly progressive federal government drive US commercial space work to an off shore facility?

    Well if idiotic parasites like Donna Edwards has her way the answer is yes…

  • Kapoleidave

    Well, after congress missed out on meddling with the internet for so many years, they’ve learned their lesson and will no longer ignore emergent markets and technologies to meddle in.

  • I’d take a different view. If Congress wants to turn astronauts into delicate little fishies that must be packed into cotton, they are free to create a market by putting that in as a requirement for government personnel to orbit. Regulatory impositions are a bit more than that. Regulation means insisting on the sort of standard that not all of us are interested in. So let them impose their standards and have government personnel fly late (because it’ll take longer to develop those systems), rarely (because of the increased expense), and be unable to meet the needs of the nation requiring more and more to be solved by organizations that are not as hamstrung.

    That would not be a bad end game.

  • Rich K

    Considering that Putin is getting 70 million a ride for our astronauts now, maybe those congresscritters are taking orders from Vlad.And campaign donations.
    I’d also like to hear how these same congressmen are going to impose the will of the US Guv on the Russians about safety since we are paying our money for these flights on the taxpayers dime.

  • Orion314

    Donna Edwards is a fine example of why affirmative action was and is a very bad idea…especially , ESPECIALLY , in politics…
    this country used to be about promoting the best people , now, its about promoting political correctness.

    • rarchimedes

      Rep. Edwards is no different than the rest of the Congress on both sides of the aisle in protecting the interests of her district and/or state over the interests of the nation at large. The Johnson Space Center has been a cash cow and technology hub for Texas and the Houston-Galveston area and most of the jobs there will go away if companies like SpaceX take over launch responsibilities. Though SpaceX has a rocket motor test and development center in the Waco area and appears to be planning a launch facility in the Brownsville area (probably to get that extra couple of degrees closer to the Equator while still being in the U.S.), the only role JSC would have in the commercial space would be scientific and in communications, with no need for the massive launch crews and the simulation and training facilities. What seems a more likely result if more roadblocks are thrown up is that commercial space will use the excuse of orbital efficiency to move operations to a country like Costa Rica or Guyana or to share the ESA center in French Guiana, though I doubt ESA and the Russians will want to facilitate their competitors for launch services. A guy like Elon Musk will not long suffer interference in his plans and any of the rest of the crowd that survive will almost have to join him in whatever moves he makes.

      What makes this eminently important is the high likelihood that NASA will not be able to sustain the SLS/Orion project with the slow launch rate that is planned or with any launch rate greater than that because of the lack of budget. Employment at Canaveral and JSC will then completely collapse in a most disorderly fashion, leaving the commercial space boys and girls as the only game in town. Seeing the handwriting on the wall and transferring sufficient budget to commercial space “purchases” will prevent that collapse from being so disorderly and allow the excess funds now allocated to the latest big booster project to be used for actual payloads and space infrastructure. The ISS could be given enough shielding to be safely boosted into an orbit high enough to be less needy of constant reboost, and facilities could be added for on-orbit assembly and fueling to allow rational and far less expensive access to space in and beyond LEO. We might even be able to sustain the Hubble for another couple of decades.

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