Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Living In Interesting Times Under The Scrutiny Of Important People

"May you live in interesting times and come to the attention of important people."
-Supposed Chinese Curse

More than one speaker at the Space Access Conference 2005 cited the above quote to describe the current state of the alternative commercial space industry, alt-space, as it's called. Use of the phrase at the conference was more appropriate than people may realize since it might not be an old Chinese curse at all. Instead it could be a line, described as a both a blessing and a curse, from a 1950 science-fiction story called "U-Turn" by Duncan H. Munro aka Eric Frank Russell. (Click here to read that digression.)

So is it true? Does the phrase describe the times and, if so, is it a curse or a blessing? Like many things in life it's probably a little bit of both.

Interesting Times?

Nobody paying any attention to space could deny that these are interesting times. The year 2004 is looking to have been a watershed year for alt-space. President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration thing in January, and on the same day that Burt Rutan's crew broke the sound barrier while testing Space Ship One. A component of the Vision thing directs NASA to pursue commercial opportunities for service of the International Space Station and to perform its exploration mission. Later that year, the Aldridge Commission issued its report and also recommended NASA make commercialization of space one of its priorities. Rutan's crew was the first private venture to send a human into space, not just once but three times. And Richard Branson committed millions to develop his own private space fleet of tourist ships to take paying customers into suborbital space. Finally, back to the government again, the feds passed the Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, which was drafted to support the development of a private suborbital space industry in the United States.

As the Space Access Conference showed, Rutan and Branson are not the only people working to get the rest of us into space and make a buck while doing it. Flying west to east across the United States there's XCOR in Mojave, which has just gotten a major contract with NASA and continues to piece together what they need to send a human into space. JP Aerospace, also in California, is working on a wild vision of getting to orbit using giant airships and continues to fly balloons to the edge of space for paying customers. Armadillo Aerospace in Texas is testing their home-built rockets. TGV Rockets in Oklahoma has 15 full-time engineers working on continuing the DCX program for their customers, of which they say they have two who have paid so far. In the same state Rocketplane LLC has taken the $12 million they got by selling a $18 million tax credit they won from the State of Oklahoma and is building a rocketplane based on a Lear Jet, which they say they will take off like a plane from a runway in 2006, blast into suborbit from flight, and then return to Earth landing like a plane on the same runway.

But interesting times is only the first clause of the quote.

Coming to the attention of important people?

In the context of the curse, important people surely must mean, "the government." As passage of the Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 demonstrates, alt-space has come to the attention of the government in a big way. Indeed, the interesting times the alt-spacers are going through directly contributed to passage of the Act. Tim Hughes, majority counsel for the House Science Committee, said at the Space Access Conference that Space Ship One's safe and successful flights in 2004 helped to secure passage of the bill. Two important people who pushed the bill are Tom DeLay in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate.

The Act enjoyed bi-partisan support in Congress and passed by unanimous consent in the Senate and with more than a 2/3 majority in the House. Despite this overwhelming support the Act had to overcome a strong floor fight against it in House by those who objected to what they called the Act's "tombstone mentality."

What the tombstone mentality means is the Act specifically tells the FAA that they can't regulate design specifications of suborbital rockets for safety for at least 8 years unless sometime before then a serious safety problem has been demonstrated. In other words, the FAA has to keep their hands off design for now unless somebody dies.

Right now, the FAA is working on producing regulations for the Act. The FAA's role will be as a one-stop shop for licensing commercial launches and providing experimental permits. The FAA is supposed to protect the uninvolved public as much as possible without requiring specific designs for safety. The theory there is that the government shouldn't specify what is not known is required for safety. As for crew, the Act simply requires that crew be informed of the risks before participating.

To further help this infant industry grow, the term "suborbital vehicle" was defined as broadly as possible to sweep as many efforts as possible within the Act. This was done to benefit the industry because ventures that fall under the Act can go through a streamlined one-stop shop process at the FAA to get a launch license for commercial flights and an experimental permit for testing. The term "crew" was also broadly defined to include ground personnel to sweep as many people as possible out of the uninvolved public category, which requires greater safety protection, and into the informed risk category, which requires less.

If last year is any indication, coming to the attention of important people has been a blessing for the alt-space industry rather than a curse. The federal government is formally committed under the President's Vision thing to including commercial space opportunities for its exploration mission. The industry got Congress's attention and there were enough important people supporting the it to ensure passage of a law specifically designed to help the industry grow. The FAA, tasked by Congress to regulate the industry, has allies of the industry in its ranks and is writing the regulations to fulfill Congress's mandate to support the industry.

There are important people in Congress, however, who will be watching how the industry performs under the new regulations. The loose regime enacted by Congress was helped immensely by the successes of 2004. Despite those successes a strong minority in Congress wanted to have stricter safety regulations in place now. The threat that looms over the industry is what will happen 8 years from now when the FAA gets its first opportunity to tighten the regulatory vice, or even sooner if tombstones start popping up with the epitaph, "killed by a rocket falling out of the sky."

To give itself room to grow into a mature industry, the alt-spacers must recognize that today's society may be a heck of a lot less forgiving of accidents than early 20th Century America was of the barnstormers who started the airplane industry at great risk to themselves. Important people with the power to kill this industry will be watching what happens. Interesting times indeed.


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Coming to the attention of important people: The Curse

"US export rules frustrate Virgin

"The first Virgin vehicle will be called VSS-Enterprise.

"Sir Richard Branson's plans to offer a commercial sub-orbital spaceflight service have run into some difficulty.

"His Virgin Galactic company wants to license the technology in the record-breaking SpaceShipOne vehicle created by US designer Burt Rutan.

"But the process is being obstructed by US export control rules, particularly those that address technology with potential military applications.

"The issue is likely to delay the service debut of Virgin's space liners."

More at:

"I thought Britain was a relatively friendly nation," Mr Rutan quipped during a recent US Congressional hearing about commercial space flight.

JP Aerospace just flew a mission last Saturday. This flight "Away 26" was in support of the Airship to Orbit program.
The on board cameras got some great pics. We've posted them on the JPA web site.

Also on board were 202 PongSat student experiments.

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