The modern instruction manual for America
A new report by the RAND corporation has recommended that Congress allow the moratorium on full regulation of commercial human spaceflight, established by the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 and extended several times, to expire on October 1, 2023.
That recommendation came despite a lack of progress on voluntary standards and key industry metrics. While standards development organizations like ASTM International and ISO have published 20 standards related to commercial spaceflight, the RAND report noted that “companies have yet to clearly or consistently adopt them in a manner that can be confirmed or verified publicly.” A diversity of technical approaches also hinders the development and implementation of standards.
The report also found that while the FAA had developed key industry indicators to assess readiness for adopting safety regulations, there were no goals for those indicators to determine when it was time to implement regulations. “It is, therefore, difficult to assess whether there has been progress toward meeting key industry metrics when there are not clear targets that could be met,” the report concluded.
Despite that lack of progress on standards or metrics, the RAND report nonetheless concluded that allowing the learning period to expire this year was the best approach. Doing so, it argued, would allow FAA and industry to start the process of developing safety regulations in a gradual manner and avoid a rush to regulate imposed by Congress should a high-profile accident take place while the learning period is still in effect.
It also recommended additional resources for the FAA to support that regulatory process, but did not quantify an increase in the budget for or personnel assigned to its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST. [emphasis mine]
The highlighted words illustrate the crushing fundamentals of all government regulation. First, it always wants to establish “standards” that do not allow for “a diversity of technical approaches. To do so requires that government to squelch that diversity, thus choking off the kind of innovation we have seen in the past decade that has brought America’s rocket industry to life.
Second, the goal of all this regulation is never its feel-good stated goals. Instead, it is always aimed at growing that government bureaucracy. More rules must require more bureaucrats! Or to put it more bluntly, the regulation is always aimed at transferring power to the government.
When the moratorium expires commercial human spaceflight will immediately transition from being run like most of American business since the nation’s founding, free and independent and open to quick innovation and little regulation, to the modern America of heavy regulation and no innovation, with control increasingly passed from the private engineers who know the business to Washington bureaucrats who only know how to wield power and stymie creativity.
I noted these basic facts back in 2005 when I was writing a weekly UPI column when the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 finally passed.
Nonetheless, in reading these guidelines, one wonders about the future. For example, the guidelines propose requiring every passenger to “provide his or her medical history to a physician experienced or trained in the concepts of aerospace medicine.” If the doctor has further questions, the guidelines also propose that he or she require the passenger to undergo a physical examination.
Imagine if the airline industry had been required to develop commercial jet travel under these rules. Though at first such medical checks might have seemed reasonable, after the industry matured such rules would have only discouraged passenger travel.
Another suggested guideline – under the guise of making sure future passengers will be fully informed of the risks of spaceflight – proposes that a launch company not only provide information about its own safety record, but also submit “the safety record of all launch and re-entry vehicles that have carried one or more persons on board, including both U.S. government and private-sector vehicles.” Under this rule, each private company would have to track both its own activities and somehow keep records on all other private American space efforts, a requirement that seems incredibly odious and unreasonable.
At that time, most space industry people were in favor of the law, thinking it would ease their ability to raise investment capital. Instead, it put the sword of Damocles over their heads. Though many officials quoted in the link above say that Congress will likely extend the moratorium, this merely delays the inevitable. At some point Congress will allow the moratorium to expire, and at that point this cutting edge industry will be forced to operate like a modern airline, as it will no longer be ruled by customer demand and innovation and engineering creativity, but by bureaucrats in Washington who know little of demand or engineering or especially innovation. All these Washington pencil pushers know is wielding power.
At that point the emerging space industry we have seen in the past decade will begin to wither and die, at least here in the United States. We will then pass the torch to other nations who will have greater wisdom and more courage.