In a reasonably sane world, there would have been no perceived need for House Resolution 5382, the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, which passed the Senate during the final minutes of the recent lame-duck session and awaits President Bush’s signature.
Given the world we live in, however, it offers a fairly sensible approach to the private space race that is emerging in the wake of the successful suborbital flight of SpaceShipOne, honchoed by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his team over the Mojave Desert this year.
In the real world, everybody knows that for those who want to go into space on a privately launched vehicle, the incentives for safety are built in and would be more effective than anything government regulation could provide.
Anybody with $20,000 or $50,000 to be a passenger is likely to have the means and the motivation to check into safety very carefully before strapping in. In addition, a private commercial space enterprise will require insurance, and the insurance companies won’t offer coverage for a vehicle held together with chewing gum.
In Washington, however, a common assumption is that nothing new is to be allowed until government has regulated it in advance, down to the smallest detail. The fact that this would have prevented many beneficial innovations of the past doesn’t seem to register with the minions of the administrative state.
In the absence of new legislation, the Federal Aviation Administration had already set up an Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which issued licenses to Rutan’s Mojave Aerospace Ventures (and a couple of other would-be space jockey outfits). So lack of regulation was not a problem.
However, nobody could be sure exactly what course the FAA might take in the future, so there was benefit in passing HR 5382, whose principal author and most vocal congressional advocate was California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
The most useful aspect of the bill is a provision allowing the FAA to start issuing regulations to protect the safety of passengers only eight years after the bill becomes law. Before then, the agency may restrict design features or operating practices only if they have resulted in a serious or fatal injury.
This will allow a reasonable time for the industry to experiment with new designs under a regime in which it is assumed that passengers and crew assume all risk. This should allow for the experiments — some of which succeed and some of which don’t — that inevitably accompany any complex innovative technology.
Insofar as HR 5382 delays federal micromanagement it is useful. But it is too bad the intellectual climate is such that so many people believe regulation must precede innovation.