Bureaucrats fight over the regulation of commercial space

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Battle of bureaucrats: The FAA’s office that regulates commercial space (AST) and the National Transportation Safety Boad (NTSB) are fighting over the procedures AST should use to control and manage the work of private space companies.

The issues deal with how the FAA inspects the work of space companies, prompted by the NTSB’s investigation into the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash in 2014. The kerfuffle also illustrates the absurdity of the regulatory responsibilities that Congress forced on AST when it amended the commercial space act in 2004. Somehow it is expected that bureaucrats in Washington will know better how to make sure a private company’s new space designs are safe than the very engineers who are building them. The disagreement here is merely about how the bureaucrats keep watch. The NTSB wants AST’s bureaucrats to hover over them like a worried mother. AST wants to hover from a little farther away, like a proud father.

In either case, the hovering will accomplish little to make the cutting edge engineering more safe except create fake jobs in the government for hovering bureaucrats, while squelching risky innovation since such risks go against the instincts of every bureaucrat.

Though Congress has recently revised the law to ease its regulations, they didn’t really do much to remove them. Expect these kerfuffles to get bigger in the coming years as the Washington bureaucracy moves to impose its will on this industry while simultaneously manipulating the press and Congress to create more useless jobs for themselves.

If they succeed, we should also expect them to succeed in making innovative commercial development in space become increasingly impossible.


  • Hi Robert.

    I think you’re interpretation is wrong here. The problem the NTSB found was that FAA AST were assigning random inspectors to particular SpaceShipTwo flights who really didn’t have full knowledge of the systems and practices that Scaled was using. In one case, they didn’t have time to do full inspections before flight tests.

    The goal of the NSTB recommendation is to assign particular inspectors to specific programs so they have in-depth knowledge of what they will be inspecting. They will be better able to determine if what a company is doing matches what they said they would be doing in their application and meeting the conditions of their permits or licenses.

    FAA AST has argued that given its resources and the dynamic nature of inspections, it’s impossible to do this. They also argue that inspectors become more well rounded as they focus on different systems.

  • Doug,

    I am aware of these details. I think we disagree about the fundamental need for this regulation and inspection by government officials.

    I do not remember the Wright Brothers having a government inspector looking over their shoulders. Nor do I remember William Boeing, Donald Douglas, Glenn Martin, or Jim McDonnell having government inspectors looking over their shoulders when they built Boeing, Martin, Douglas Aircraft, or McDonnell Aircraft. In fact, such an idea would have outraged them and the rest of the American public at that time. Then, Americans honored freedom and the risks that go with it. They did not blanch or get outraged when a newly designed airplane failed. They did not demand that the government step in to fix it. They shrugged and accepted the risks as the cost of progress and learning new things.

    Moreover, it is absurd to think that this inspector is going to contribute much to the development of these new spacecraft. All he or she really can do is cause problems. And the assumption that without such an inspector the companies would be consciously sloppy and purposely cut corners, increasing the public’s risk, is also a false one. It is not in their interest to have failures. They, far more than any government bureaucrat, have too much to lose by such a failure (as Virgin Galactic is so clearly learning).

    In the end, this whole game is merely a tool to justify the existence of more government employees. Notice how AST is arguing that in order to do what the NSTB wants they need more resources. Surprise, surprise!

    In the end, the real goal here is to concentrate more power in Washington, stealing that power from the Americans who are actually trying to do something creative and new. It is disgusting, and a sign once again that freedom is dying and a new dark age is coming.

  • Edward

    From the article: “The office’s [FAA AST] main statutory authority is to protect the safety of the “uninvolved” public and third-party property.”

    From the article: “‘Further, we found that the filtering of questions and the lack of direct communication between AST technical staff and Scaled technical staff impeded Scaled’s ability to take advantage of AST’s safety expertise,’ the safety board [NTSB] said.”

    It seems that the NTSB believes that the job of the AST is to provide design expertise to experimenters rather than provide oversight. It is one thing to tell an experimenter that his experiment is unsafe and must be redesigned to prevent the unsafe condition and another thing to tell him how to redesign it. Such an attitude reduces the creativity of the inventor/designer.

    An experimenter may have a pressure vessel that is unsafe above a certain pressure. The safety inspector could insist upon a pressure relief valve or the inventor could create a new passive feedback that slows and stops the pressurization before reaching the danger point. In the latter case, we get two new patents instead of one, and the design is better for it, as there is no loss of the precious gas inside the vessel.

    I once worked on a space instrument design for a NASA satellite, but we could not find a connector that would fit the small space we had available. We wrote a waiver (a request to deviate from standard NASA practices) to solder the two wires together. NASA does not like such solder joints, as they are not as reliable as connectors, so they denied permission and told us that they thought we could find a solution. I do not know if the tiny connectors we found were what NASA had in mind or if we found connectors that NASA did not previously know about, but NASA made us solve the problem rather than tell us exactly how to design our instrument.

  • pzatchok

    If the government engineer was so good that they would be able to come up with better ideas than the guy working for the company then wouldn’t the government engineer have been the guy hired by the company in the first place?

    If your not good enough to be hired in the private sector you go to work in the government sector.

  • That like a great place to live, Robert. But, it’s not in the world we live in.

    Question: have you actually done any research into early aviation and how it was regulated? The story is pretty complex. Much more so than the standard rhetorical line.

    I find it odd that on the one hand, NASA is trying to transfer as much of its experience and knowledge to the private sector on the commercial cargo and crew programs. And that’s seen as a good thing. But, with suborbital space, any sort of government involvement is seen as a hindrance. I don’t understand that.

    Whatever the reason, the results speak for themselves. More hype than accomplishments in suborbital space for the past 11.5 years. Blue Origin, which is using a more traditional approach and has worked with NASA, being the exception.

    If you’re looking for why there hasn’t been more progress, don’t look at the government. The industry needs to look in the mirror.

    The end of the shuttle program brought a lot of that expertise into FAA AST. But, the way the rules were written at the industry’s request back in 2004 — when routine space travel was right around the corner — the folks who understood safety were stymied.

  • I’m guessing if people at Scaled or Virgin had asked propulsion and safety experts at NASA what they thought of hybrid engines and the use nitrous oxide as an oxidizer in a passenger spaceship, they probably would have told them to go with a liquid bi-prop. It would have saved years of development effort and three lives.

    But, they didn’t. And they bear responsibility for their decisions.

  • “Question: have you actually done any research into early aviation and how it was regulated? The story is pretty complex. Much more so than the standard rhetorical line.”

    Why do you always assume I am ignorant of the details in these matters? I am a professional space historian, and have written extensively on these subjects. Yes, there was some regulation in the early days, but compared to today it did not exist at all.

    And it is not a valid debate point to tell me that, because things have changed from the way they were a century ago, I shouldn’t note the negative consequences of those changes. Maybe we should consider changing back. If we could change things in one direction we can change them in the other.

    Unless you like how things are. It doesn’t appear so, considering how you yourself note how the suborbital tourism industry has stalled in the decade-plus since the 2004 law was passed and the regulations of that law have been imposed on them.

  • D. Messier

    The 2004 law has not been the cause of the slow progress. You are looking in the wrong place. This was a law industry basically wrote. The burdens of it are not excessive. The industry has a lot of problems but FAA hasnt been holding it back.

  • pzatchok

    Who from the industry wrote the rules?

    Do you really think they would write rules they needed to do much to follow?

    Why does Boeing not need to bo all the safety checks that SpaceX does for its manned capsule?

    As for Virgin they are a self inflicted wound. History and everyone in the industry told them not to use those type of engines but they worked for years trying to prove everyone wrong. And are still trying even after totally failing every time.
    As for the wreck even I could see the problem. Those wings should NEVER have been able to be even thought of coming unlocked during acceleration. If they came unlocked there was noway to relock them under acceleration. Their geometry alone fought that idea.

  • If some people in the industry had their way, the federal government wouldn’t have any authority to regulate the industry. But again, we live in the 21st century, so that was not possible. Instead, the regulations were written as loosely as possible. I’m not sure who exactly from the industry was involved back then (I could probably make some pretty good guesses). I’m sure Congress incorporated as many of their wishes as possible. We just saw the same thing happen last year with the new space law.

  • Edward

    D. Messier wrote: “If some people in the industry had their way, the federal government wouldn’t have any authority to regulate the industry.”

    This is not necessarily true. A certain amount of reasonable regulation assures investors that legal questions are less likely to hamper an industry or a company. When there are rules to follow, then less litigation is likely.

    Problems arise, however, when the regulation is so heavy handed that it hampers newcomers, innovation, productivity improvement (e.g. product price), the search for talented people, or other business operations or decisions.

  • “Problems arise, however, when the regulation is so heavy handed that it hampers newcomers, innovation, productivity improvement (e.g. product price), the search for talented people, or other business operations or decisions.”

    Not the case here, Edward.

    Also note that I said “some people” in the industry. Not all.

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