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The red tape of the space bureaucracy

“An article in the Economist today has some chilling conclusions about the difficulties faced by the new commercial space companies.

Although the cost of developing new space vehicles, products and services is high, just as much of a burden can be imposed by such intangible expenses as regulatory compliance, legal fees and insurance premiums.

The article points out the heavy cost to these new space companies caused by insurance requirements and government regulation, including the ITAR regulations that restrict technology transfers to foreign countries. However, this paragraph stood out to me as most significant:

Then there is the question of vehicle certification. The first private astronauts and space tourists may soon take to the skies in new launch vehicles, and the FAA has initially agreed to license commercial spacecraft without certifying, as it does for aircraft, that the vehicles are safe to carry humans. The idea is that specific safety criteria will become apparent only once the rockets are flying and (though it is rarely admitted) an accident eventually happens. This learning period will keep costs down for makers of the new spacecraft, even if significant compliance expenses are likely when it is over. The exemption was meant to have expired last year and was extended to the end of 2015. Commercial space companies are understandably keen for it to be extended again. “In the dawn of aviation, planes had 20 to 30 years before significant legislation applied,” says George Whitesides, the boss of Virgin Galactic.

Back in 2004 I noted in a UPI column the problems caused by these regulations, even as they were being written. (I had also done something at the time that few reporters ever do: I actually read the law that Congress was passing.) Then I said,

Most worrisome about the new law is it seems to shift AST’s [the FAA’s commercial space office] focus from encouraging the growth of new space industries to making sure they operate safely. As the law states, AST’s purpose no longer will be merely to facilitate the growth of the industry, but to promote “the continuous improvement of the safety of launch vehicles designed to carry humans, including the issuance of regulations.”

No one wants people to get hurt, but everyone involved in the private human spaceflight industry is aware of the risks and — like NASA astronauts — willing to accept them. In a free society, this seems appropriate. The new law does not allow the industry to take on these risks; instead, it introduces the right of the government to protect spaceflight entrepreneurs from themselves.

In later 2005 UPI column, I came to the conclusion that the new law would do little to increase safety but much to restrict the growth of this fledgling industry.

Considering the way governments normally function, however, it is almost certain that when something goes wrong – as is certain to happen in this dangerous effort to push toward the unknown – demands from congressmen such as Oberstar, or by the public itself, will force the FAA to make these rules more complicated and restrictive.

My opposition to the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act generated a lot of criticism. In one case some industry people even made an effort to get one of my appearances on the Space Show canceled in order to prevent me from expressing this opposition in a public forum.

Well, here we are, almost a decade later, and it appears my concerns were correct all along. The new commercial space industry now has to go back to Congress and beg them to change the law so that they can do their business without government interference. What a surprise!

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

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  • Your comments back in 2004 made a lot of sense in the context in which they were made: we all thought Mojave Aerospace Ventures was going to fly 40+ people to demonstrate the commercial potential of SpaceShipOne and Virgin Galactic was going to be flying shortly after in vehicles that were much the same. That didn’t happen, mostly because Paul Allen was offered a sweet tax write off by the National Air and Space Museum and Richard Branson was already convinced.

    I think you’ll find that the new legislation, when it comes, will be pushed by none other than Virgin Galactic. Unbelievably after almost 10 years of development, they still have the lead in suborbital space tourism, and soon they’re going to have to start solidifying that lead with burdensome legislation to block the other entrants who will be attracted to the market by the profits they hope to be making.

  • Edward

    At this point, we should not be stifling attempts at space traffic with overregulation. Safety should not be ignored, but there are only about 510 spaceflights under our belts to have learned from. Does the “red tape” even know how to keep a crew safe, or is it just guessing (as in Gene Kranz in “Apollo 13”)?

    Bill Whittle addressed the safety issue by comparing the emerging commercial space industry with the commercial airline industry. It took a century and many, many deadly accidents for the US to learn enough about flying to have a decade without a single deadly accident of a major airline. But will we have the same tolerance of deadly accidents in commercial space? (7 minutes)

    It is still difficult and dangerous to get into space. The only spacecraft, so far, that have not killed a crew made fewer than 17 manned flights. How will commercial space companies fare; can they do better than the government programs have?

    Spacecraft with no fatalities (# of manned flights) [further notes]:
    Gemini (12)
    Mercury (6)
    Shenzhou (4, soon to be 5) [still operational]
    SpaceShipOne (3 into space, 13 manned test flights not into space)
    Voskhod (2)
    Vostok (6)

    Spacecraft with fatalities (# of manned flights) [further notes]:
    Apollo (11) [1 crew killed in ground test, none in flight]
    Soyuz (118) [2 crews killed in flight]
    STS/Space Shuttle (135) [2 crews killed in flight]
    X-15 (2 into space – 100 km, 197 flights not into space) [1 crew killed in flight]

  • Scott

    It took over 10 years for NYC to place a building in the crater of the 911 attack. Much of that delay was political in nature. I expect the same here.

  • Michael J. Listner

    A lot of lamenting about excessive regulation when in fact regulation is minimal compared to what it could be. There cannot be zero regulation or oversight of the commercial space industry because of international obligations the United States has.

  • Henry Vanderbilt

    Good piece, and hard to argue with your point that zero regulation would make life easier for the industry in these (surprisingly protracted) days of initial development. Somewhat easier in my view however, not decisively so.

    At the time, though, the choice wasn’t between zero regulation and the current time-limited “informed consent”/limit-max-probable-loss-to-bystanders regime. You allude to Oberstar, yes – the fight at the time was to avoid him and others of like mind imposing premature and far more restrictive detailed prescriptive certification rules. What we’ve got now is, from where I stand, about the best we were likely to get. Given that all the politically likely alternatives are worse, extending the current setup for as long as possble makes sense to me.

    As for how much longer it’s taking than expected, without going into details I would say that technical and financial learning-curve issues have been far bigger factors in various delays than the current regulatory setup.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it would be a bad thing to allow any one contender to pull up the ladder behind them by influencing the content of new regulations to favor their technical approach. That’s yet another reason to extend the current regime for as long as possible – until the rules are being rewritten, influencing the details behind the scenes is moot.

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