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Today the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, chaired by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), held the third of a series of hearings on the future regulatory framework required for American commercial space to prosper.
My previous reviews of the past two hearings can be found at these links:
- April 26, 2017: Space, regulation, the Outer Space Treaty, and yesterday’s Senate hearing
- May 23, 2017: Washington rallies around the Outer Space Treaty
In today’s hearing the witnesses in general once again called for a variety of reforms that would simplify the regulatory process for private enterprise. Dr. Moriba K. Jah, associate professor from University of Texas at Austin, suggested removing NOAA’s veto power on remote sensing, something that the proposed House bill I analyzed in my Federalist op-ed actually does). Jeffrey Manber of Nanoracks suggested giving the private sector a certain date when ISS will be decommissioned so that they can more easily obtain investment capital for building the privately-built space facilities that will replace it. Tim Ellis of Relativity, a company trying to build rocket engines manufactured entirely by 3D printing, called for more American spaceports, accessible by private companies, as well as a simplification of the FAA permitting process. Robert Cabana, Director at the Kennedy Space Center, talked about the need for government facilities to provide the infrastructure for private companies, as the center has done for the private launch sites and manufacturing facilities they have helped get established at Kennedy since the retirement of the shuttle.
Tim Hughes from SpaceX topped them all.
His list of recommendations for future deep space exploration almost appeared to be stolen directly from my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, Private Enterprise and Competition Reshape the Global Aerospace Launch Industry. The government should emulate NASA’s COTS program, using simple Space Act Agreements for any future projects, with limited funding that is fixed price with payments made only upon meeting certain goals. It should buy the products from private companies instead of designing and building them itself. It should leave ownership to the private companies. It should encourage competition by awarding these contracts to multiple companies. And it should give contracts to both established as well as new companies.
I am not complaining that his recommendations mirrored mine so closely. Instead, I am thrilled, because it means that increasingly these ideas are becoming the accepted approach by all concerned. Hughes might have read my paper, but I doubt it. I think SpaceX and its management have wanted this to be the approach since day one of that company’s dealings with the government.
Unlike the first two hearings, the subject of the Outer Space Treaty was hardly mentioned. Instead, the focus was on the federal government’s future space policy, in particular how it will replace ISS as well as encourage American interplanetary exploration and settlement in future decades. With both, the approach for doing these things was assumed to be the private sector. ISS will be replaced by many different privately-owned orbiting facilities, making money providing many different services to many different customers, both public and private. Deep space habitats, interplanetary spaceships, and future colonies on other worlds might be proposed by the government, but they will be built by private enterprise.
What everyone at the hearing, both Senators and witnesses, was trying to figure out was how the government could best make this future happen. The big question was how to balance the government’s needs with the private sector’s.
It is clear that no conclusions here were reached. What is also clear — and far more important — is that it appears that in NASA’s competition between commercial space (cargo and crew to ISS) and government space (SLS/Orion), commercial space has apparently won. No one, including the ranking committee Democrat, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), was talking about another big government program to go to the Moon. Instead, it was assumed that the future settlement of the solar system by Americans will be accomplished by many different private American companies, for their own profit as well as for the government’s needs.
The battle now will be to keep the balance between private enterprise and the government leaning towards private enterprise. We must never again make the mistake of allowing NASA and the government to run and control everything.