George Nield, who has been the associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is going to retire at the end of March.
Nield has held the position for the past 15 years, and has been a big supporter of private commercial space. While Congress has passed laws during this time period that gave his office lots of regulatory power and thus the ability to lord it over these new companies, Nield instead worked with them so that their efforts would not be hampered by the government. The result has been the birth of a thriving competitive and innovative private launch industry.
I fear what will happen with the next person to hold this position. History tells us that bureaucracies always expand their power with every opportunity, with such expansions often instigated by the arrival of new bureaucrats eager to take advantage of the regulations to build themselves an empire.
As requested by Vice-President Mike Pence during the first meeting of the National Space Council, the FAA has now submitted its recommendations for streamlining the launch licensing process.
“We came up with our vision for a 21st century licensing process,” [George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation] said. That process, he said, could include licenses that cover different versions of a family of vehicles, launching from different sites on different missions, “on the same piece of paper.” Nield said other elements of that vision include “performance-based” regulations that don’t limit companies on how they can achieve a certain requirement, as well as ways to accelerate the license review process, which can take up to 180 days once a completed application is submitted.
Some of those changes, Nield said, may take longer to carry our, particularly when they involve issues like environmental reviews. He said the FAA is looking at other near-term streamlining approaches, such as the use of a mechanism called “safety approvals” that provides pre-approval of subsystems or processes — and potentially entire launch vehicles — to speed the license review process.
Nield also put in a request for additional staff for his office, which currently has about 100 people. “If we had some additional folks that could look at fixing the process rather than just having everybody having their head down cranking out these licenses, then we could make a significant improvement” in the license review process, he said. [emphasis mine]
While I do think Nield is sincere about reducing regulation, and has generally been a positive force in his job in helping the new commercial launch business, he is still a bureaucrat. The whole point here is to encourage the policy-makers to give his office the job of regulating space, so that Nield’s responsibilities grow.
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.
The competition heats up? Congress this week passed a revision to the Commercial Space Act that they claimed will help encourage the growth of the new industry.
According to the Senate press release, the bill does the following:
- Extend the liability waiver for private space launches until 2023
- Extend ISS operations until 2024
- Establishes a legal right for U.S. companies to mine resources in space
- Demands a new more streamlined framework for the government’s regulation of the industry
The last item is probably mostly blather, since a close look at the bill itself [pdf] reveals that most of these demands are merely requirements that the executive branch write a report. The odious rules that will allow the federal government to regulate and restrict the industry all remain. And even though the bill makes a big deal about establishing these regulations in concert with the industry itself, that only means that today’s players can use the government to make it difficult for new players to get started.
The claim that the bill also establishes “a legal right to resources a U.S. citizen may recover in space consistent with current law and international obligations of the United States,” as noted in the Senate press release, is a very big overstatement. The bill’s wording does nothing to get the U.S. out of the UN’s Outer Space Treaty, which forbids any person or nation from claiming ownership of territory in space. All the bill does is express the desire that American citizens should have the right to own what they mine, while at the same time stating that these resources will be “obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.’’ In other words, the Outer Space Treaty still applies, and you can’t own it.
For what it’s worth, the bill also renames the FAA’s space regulatory agency from “The Office of Space Commercialization” to “The Office of Space Commerce.”
All in all, the bill’s most important overall accomplishment is that it strongly emphasizes and encourages the development of a private space industry, and tries to focus the government’s regulatory efforts in that direction. This ain’t perfect, but it could be considered a step in the right direction.
One more thing to note: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) appears to have been a major player in getting this bill written and passed.
A GAO report has concluded that the FAA has not provided sufficient justification for its 2016 requested budget and staff increases for its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).
AST requested an additional $1.5 million more plus an increase of its staff by 13 to handle what it expects to be an increase in commercial launches. However,
The GAO report cautioned about using predictions of launches as a reason for hiring additional staff because, in recent years, “the actual number of launches during those years was much lower than what FAA projected.” In one example, the FAA projected it would license more than 40 launches and reentries in 2014, but the actual number was about 20.
The report also revealed a split among companies in the commercial launch business about the importance of increasing AST’s budget. While industry organizations like the Commercial Spaceflight Federation have expressed their support for the proposed budget increase, only three of the nine companies surveyed by the GAO believed the office has insufficient resources to deal with its workload. Three other companies thought the office has sufficient resources, and the remaining three expressed no opinion. The report did not identify which companies held those opinions, but did list the nine companies contacted by the GAO: Blue Origin, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Virgin Galactic, Vulcan Aerospace and XCOR Aerospace.
The second paragraph in the quote above suggests that a majority of the private companies that AST would regulate are not enthused about giving that government agency more resources or abilities. To me, I suspect that the phrase “We’re here to help you!” and what it usually signifies about the government has something to do with that lack of enthusiasm.
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.
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