Up, Up, and Away?

Space is the place.


Forty years after the Wright brothers' first flight, more than 1 million people had flown in airplanes. More than 40 years after Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, barely 500 individuals have flown in space.

It turns out that federal regulations are stronger than gravity in holding back the commercial development of space launches. In the 1970s, for example, the Carter administration banned federal agencies from using private providers to place cargoes in space. In March, in an effort to reduce the regulatory barriers to private spaceflight, the House of Representatives passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, aimed at streamlining the process for entrepreneurs to get permission to launch travelers into space.

Something similar has been tried before. Congress passed the Commercial Space Act of 1998 in the hope of jump-starting commercial development by requiring the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to buy "space-based and airborne Earth remote sensing data, services, distribution, and applications from a commercial provider." The 1998 act also removed the ban on private carriers' bringing back payloads and vehicles from space. But in 2001 the Cato Institute's Ed Hudgins testified before Congress that even after the passage of the 1998 law, "Securing permission to launch still involves safety requirements, reentry licensing, financial responsibility requirements, site operations licensing, and various environmental impact requirements. If this sort of regime had been in place in the early part of this century, the civil aviation industry probably would still be a dream waiting for a deregulated future to be realized."

The new legislation attempts to remedy the licensing problem by locating all commercial space flight authority under the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. This office is supposed to make it easier to launch new types of reusable suborbital rockets by issuing experimental permits that can be granted more quickly and with fewer requirements than full licenses.

The world's first space tourist, Dennis Tito, has declared that the 2004 amendments are "precisely the kind of legislation Congress should enact in order to give investors like me confidence that our space tourism ventures will be regulated in a fair and streamlined manner." That sounds good, but bitter experience shows that government bureaucracies hate giving up any regulatory authority. Anyone want to bet that a million people will have flown in space by 2044?