Commercial Development of Space

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.

SpaceShipOne and White KnightWhatever 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.

  2 comments for “Commercial Development of Space

  1. Joel in Texas
    October 23, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    Ron, what a great article! I watched with high interested the special on the Discovery Channel about the race to space (I think it was called Black Sky, or something like that). Now that I work across the street from NASA, I get to chat with NASA employees all the time. I asked them about the SpaceShipOne and expected them to either look down on it or shun its importance, but surprisingly their attitude is basically one of jealousy. They say that NASA could be doing so much more if it wasn’t for all the regulations and beaurocracy that they have to follow. One of my friends is the head flight navigator for the shuttle and he was pretty excited to follow the SpaceShipOne progress. As he talked about it he got all giddy and excited like a little kid. Fun stuff. Anyway, just wanted to contribute to your great article.

  2. Ron
    October 23, 2004 at 10:51 pm

    Hey Joel! Great to hear from you. Thanks for the Texas perspective on this.

    The reaction of NASA personnel is understandable. They really want to get into space, both as a nation and as individual people. This technology is the sort of thing that will make it possible for them to not only work in that massive agency, but actually travel into space themselves within their own lifetime. Something they probably didn’t think was possible unless they were a member of the NASA astronaut corps.

    To be honest with you, I didn’t it was possible either until I heard SS1 was a Burt Rutan project. Once he was in on the X Prize thing, I knew it would be a success. There’s a lot of vaporware in the commercial space industry, but Rutan is one guy who always delivers.

    I’m especially proud of the Scaled Composites team because most of them got their start, and are still largely involved in, general aviation. Specifically, the experimental/homebuilt side of it. Which once again proves that when regulation and red tape are removed, wonderful things can be accomplished. It only requires the impossible: namely, that the government relinquish control over something.

    The greatest legacy of SpaceShipOne may well be the irrefutable way it reinforced this truism.

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