Another law, another squelched dream

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Surprise, surprise! Virgin Galactic space tourists could be grounded by federal regulations.

Virgin Galactic submitted an application to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation in late August 2013, says Attenborough. The office, which goes by the acronym AST, has six months to review the application, meaning an approval may come as early as February. Industry experts, however, say that may be an overly optimistic projection. “An application will inevitably be approved, but it definitely remains uncertain exactly when it will happen,” says Dirk Gibson, an associate professor of communication at the University of New Mexico and author of multiple books on space tourism. “This is extremely dangerous and unchartered territory. It’s space travel. AST has to be very prudent,” he says. “They don’t want to endanger the space-farers or the public, and they can’t let the industry get started and then have a Titanic-like scenario that puts an end to it all in the eyes of the public.” [emphasis mine]

As I predicted ten years ago, the 2004 revision to the Commercial Space Act puts bureaucrats in charge of the exploration of space by private citizens, a fact that can have no good consequences.

Imagine if in the 1840s and 1850s there had been a Federal Oregon Trail Administration, responsible for insuring the safety of settlers traveling by wagon train to the west coast. Nothing would have happened. Government supervision almost automatically means the avoidance of risk, something that is literally impossible when you are exploring a frontier. Instead of heading out into dangerous country with their families, Washington would have told the settlers that to wait until the federal government had made the west safe, something that was impossible for the federal government to do.

Well, space is that last frontier, and it cannot be explored if every new effort must be reviewed and approved by a paper-pusher in Washington, DC. The Commercial Space Act of 2004 expects the new, experimental, and untried spaceships of the future to meet the safety standards of the aviation industry after that industry had existed and been flying its airplanes for about seventy years. Such an expectation is impossible.

As the article suggests, the bureaucrats could regulate future activities on a case-by-case basis, rewriting their regulations as needed to avoid squelching the industry. While this might make some initial flights possible, it puts the industry entirely beholden to politicians would will use their power to suck money from these companies. It will also tend to unfairly favor the first companies out of the gate, as later companies will likely have more stringent rules to live by.

This nonchalant rewriting of the law also encourages contempt for the law, as we will have unelected regulators interpreting the law for their convenience, rather than elected legislators beholden to private citizens.

In the end, none of this is good. If the United States wants to realistically compete for the exploration of space, the Commercial Space Act either needs to be repealed, or drastically rewritten so that its power over the industry is significantly curtailed. Sadly, I do not see either of these actions happening in the near future.



  • I wonder what would happen if Virgin Galactic just ignored this? I mean, I understand that the power of the Government would be directed at them, but at some point, you’d think that a company with the popular support of Virgin would have some horsepower to just stare back and say “the Hell with you”, and the government would have to listen.

    The little guy gets ground down by regulations, this we know. Richard Branson isn’t a little guy.

  • Edward

    “… we will have unelected regulators interpreting the law for their convenience, rather than elected legislators beholden to private citizens”

    Regulation without representation.

    It’s like the never-popular Obamacare all over again (and even there, we have one elected official, supposedly beholden to private citizens, misinterpreting the law for his own convenience).

    Overregulation in order to make an inherently unsafe adventure risk-free is doomed to failure. Getting into space is harder and more dangerous than flying an airplane. Indeed, it took about five years and uncountable airplane flights for the first fatality in an airplane (Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge — ironically, a passenger of Orville Wright), but it took five years and only 16 space flights for the first spacecraft fatality (Soyuz 1 in 1967).

    Anyone who does not expect fatalities in the first years of commercial spaceflight is fooling himself, and to overregulate the activity is shortsighted. As with aircraft (and automobiles), it is from the accidents that we learn how to do it right. Will we be allowed to make the mistakes that will allow us to do it right?

    Bill Whittle worries about this topic, too. (7 minutes)

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