Glenn Reynolds has a good article on the legislative shenanigans in Congress on commercial development of space flight.
Glenn pointed out correctly in an email to me that the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has been behaving itself thus far. But even so, I cannot help but feel that if history is any indication, the FAA will soon be dropping in on this party like a lead sled.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion C. Blakey this week visited Xcor Aerospace, a rocket developer just down the Mojave Airport flight line from SpaceShipOne’s home. She talked of partnership with the new industry and said it was important for the United States to be the world leader.
She made clear, however, that broad safety issues are the agency’s topic No. 1.
I deal with FAA regulations every single day. The last thing you want to hear from the FAA is that they are going to put safety above all else, because the way to achieve maximum safety is to not fly at all. There are elements within the FAA that do not accept the fact that safety does not equate the absence of risk. Or perhaps it’s simply a disagreement over what level of risk is acceptable.
Whatever the cause, if you were to talk in private with those of us in general aviation (a group that includes Burt Rutan, Steve Fossett, Richard Branson, all four SS1 test pilots, and just about everyone at every X Prize competitor), the consensus would be that getting the FAA involved is going to slow commercial development of space flight. Just how much depends on how involved the FAA gets. The rate of development will be inversely proportional to the government’s involvement.
I’m not saying the FAA is comprised of bad people. Quite the contrary, I think quite highly of their dedication to public service. But it’s a government agency, one that falls prey to space developers, members of Congress, the media, lobbyists, and even member of the public who put pressure on government agencies for specific regulation.
And those who bring this pressure to bear on the FAA do not care that there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to safety, a point at which the financial and regulatory burden increase exponentially like a space ship approaching the speed of light.
You know, the FAA’s mission statement used to be to “promote air safety and air commerce”. A decade or so ago the part about promoting air commerce was removed. They used to have a charter which dictated promoting commercial development and air safety, two things that are at odds with each other in many ways and created some semblance of balance. Now the mantra is safety, safety, safety. And I don’t understand why. This nation didn’t get achieve great things by going with a “safety first” attitude.
It would be nice to decide from the outset that space development is important enough that, like the early manned space program, we’d accept higher risk. And that like the development of the internet, the government would stay out of it.
I feel for Rutan. He couldn’t care less about commercial development of space. Or commercial development of anything. People have been trying to push him into it for years, and he has always resisted. He has loved aviation since he started building RC airplanes (from scratch of course) when he was a kid in Dinuba and I think he’s been trying to find that sort of freedom ever since.
The military was too regulated, so he left that in the 60’s and went to civilian aviation. That was over-regulated, so he went into experimental/homebuilt aviation in the late 70’s. Then that became too regulated, so he went into space in the late 90’s. Now the FAA is following him there.