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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Tell the State to keep its hands to itself

Since Brian brought the subject up… I too have been following the political posturing that has been going on about regulating the nascent human space flight industry. The regime that currently exists is quite satisfactory to all. Customers have to read a list of all the horrible ways in which they will probably die, but once they have done so the FAA will get out of the way so long as the launch company guarantees the body parts will not cause more damage than the insurance covers when they hit the ground. (It is a little more complex than that, but I am not about to give a tutorial on spaceflight FARS just now.)

I think this open letter from an old friend of mine will explain what is currently going on in DC, or at least give you an intro to it.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Dear Space Advocates & Correspondents:

This afternoon the House of Representatives had a 40 minute debate on legislation designed to advance the U.S. commercial human spaceflight industry. It was a good and spirited debate, with bipartisan supporters speaking in favor, and two partisan Democrats speaking against HR5382.

Unfortunately, the opponents’ arguments reflected the same misunderstanding of this issue that so many people have. Their presumption is that the federal government needs to set standards to protect the safety of the early adventurers who wish to buy a risky ride into space. Even before the vehicles that would fly them are designed, let alone built and flying. Frankly, Mr. Oberstar and Mr. DeFazio, the Ranking Minority Members of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and its Aviation Subcommittee, seem to believe that we need to regulate spaceflight as if it were just another approach to Aviation.

But rockets are not airplanes, and the Commercial Space Launch Act and the U.S. commercial space transportation industry are not under the jurisdiction of the Aviation Subcommittee. Space is a new sphere of economic activity, and the House’s experts on these issues are members of the House’s Committee that is focused on America’s future, the Science Committee.

More importantly, the House worked for several months with the Senate to develop a compromise version of the original HR3752, which was passed by a vote of 402 to 1 in March of this year. It is important to note that HR3752 told the Secretary of Transportation to promote and license the carrying of “space flight participants” for compensation, i.e. to make money, under an “informed consent” regime. In other words, the rocket company had to tell the passenger how likely it was they might crash, and then the passenger could choose to take the risk or not. All regulation was focused on making sure the rockets didn’t hurt anyone on the ground. The Secretary was not given any authority – and has none under current law – to regulate in order to protect people riding on the vehicle.

And I might just point out, Mr. Oberstar and Mr. DeFazio both voted for HR3752 in March, along with every other Democratic member of the Transportation Committee who showed up to vote. (The only vote against HR3752 in March was by a libertarian Republican who didn’t think the government had any right to regulate rockets at all !)

So today’s choice on HR5382 is a choice not between one level of safety and another. It’s between Congress telling the American people they have a right to go into space and an expectation that, over time, it will become more affordable and more reliable to do so… and saying “we can’t be bothered to write legislation to help enable this new industry”. Fortunately, the American people *already* have the right to go into space. And the American free market will make it ever-more-affordable and ever-safer, even without the help of federal regulators. But it would be a good thing if this bipartisan legislation were enacted into law to help accelerate the process.

Ironically, the two members speaking in favor of higher safety today will actually leave the industry free to do whatever it wants under current law, with no process by which the Secretary could, let alone would, start to set safety standards. So perhaps they are more committed to stopping legislation – and a new industry – than safety, after all.

James Muncy
Consultant to several Commercial Human Spaceflight companies

I am sure some will complain the government should not regulate space industry at all. I agree. Unfortuneately that option does not exist. We can either ameliorate what government is going to do and have a space industry, or close our eyes and let the worst sort of Nanny Statists have their way. That could kill the industry before it grows big enough to defend itself. That is to say, big enough to get your and my bottoms off this dirtball.

5 comments to Tell the State to keep its hands to itself

  • It is a good start. Obviously as long as the government stays in its place of only worrying about the general welfare (ie, as you say, insuring any body parts falling to the earth will not cause catestrophic damage), then that’s where its interests end. In fact, its interests really lie in insuring its interests end there since business unrestrained from the nanny controls of politicians wanting face-time will, as everyone knows, bring more revenue to the industry and through that proxy to the government in the form of its pesky taxes.

  • Making sure that passengers are fully informed of the dangers and making sure that whatever they do is unlikely to cause careless innocents to die makes sense. And actually that winds up being a protection for the industry anyway–they’re less likely to be subjected to lawsuits and will have an easier time getting insurance if they can say they’re following all government safety guidelines.

  • *cringe*

    Ron Paul was the only dissenter? Ouch.

  • I’ve said it before and will no doubt have to say it again. Spaceflight from the US (or the EU for that matter) will always suffer from these problems.
    Stick a spaceport near the equator (a good idea anyway) and launch from outside such Nanny States. Somewhere in the Andes would be good.

  • Dale Amon

    Unfortuneately, you would be wrong. The US is one of the signatories to an international Cold War era treaty that says all launches by nationals of a state are the responsibility of that state. So if you take your rocket to Australia and it comes down in Canada and kills the last of the fugizicod birds… the US is liable for the damage under treaty. There for the US must regulate US citizens space activities no matter where they go.

    This is contrary the international conventions on aviation and many of us want to see that changed. There were at least some noises from inside the Bush campaign staff in that direction. It remains to be seen if it goes from sound to signifying something.

    My fondest hopes is for a threatened complete pullout from the ’67 Treaty that forces a negotiation to remove the socialist clauses.