TCS Daily

Good News and Bad News for Commercial Space

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 12, 2004 12:00 AM

The successful X-Prize mission of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne last week was a major success for the commercial space industry. But although that success has led to the creation of space tourism ventures and passengers have already appeared, the future of the commercial space industry got a setback this week when new legislation designed to foster the industry's growth died in Congress.

As Alan Boyle reports at MSNBC:

In its original as well as its amended form, the bill lays out the process for licensing suborbital space vehicles so that they could carry paying passengers -- something that SpaceShipOne, for example, is not allowed to do. The Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation already issues suborbital launch licenses, but the new legislation would have put the FAA's procedures on firmer footing.

The law also would have allowed customers to fly on those space vehicles, provided that they were fully informed about the risks and signed a consent form.

The House approved the original version by a 402-1 vote, but when it went over to the Senate side, it became caught up in negotiations -- at first, over the definitions of space vehicle, then over the bill's safety priorities.

In the amended version, the FAA is repeatedly charged with looking after the "safety of crew and spaceflight participants" as well as public health and safety. The original bill notes that "space transportation is inherently risky," while the amended version adds this phrase: "but the industry should be held to the highest standards of safety when transporting humans."

Personally, I think that this approach is silly. People with money are allowed to engage in all sorts of risky activities, ranging from "adventure vacations" in dangerous third-world countries, to sky- and cave-diving, to auto racing. Why should the government go out of its way to ensure "the highest standards of safety" for space tourism when it ignores these activities, and, in fact, doesn't even insure the "highest standards of safety" for people who ride roller coasters?

Regulation of commercial space passengers should be based on ensuring the highest standards of safety for third parties -- nobody consents, as part of everyday life, to the risk of having a rocket come down on top of him. But where passengers are concerned, it's another story. We ought to let people consent to the risks, both the known risks and the "known and unknown unknowns" regarding problems we can't really anticipate in detail.

Nobody has to fly as a space tourist: It's an individual choice, by people who undoubtedly realize that it may be risky. This report from suggests that the FAA understands what members of Congress apparently do not:

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.

"Our first concern will be the safety of the uninvolved public, making sure that as this grows and develops that we're doing everything we can to protect the folks on the ground, to make sure that the people who go into space understand the risks," she said. "It will be a risky business for many years to come, no doubt."

Protecting the "uninvolved public" -- those who simply don't want to find themselves underneath crashing rockets -- is a proper role for the government. Protecting adult citizens from themselves, and from risks they knowingly run, is not, and trying to do so is more likely to kill companies than to save lives. Let's hope that Congress remembers this next year.


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