One pilot was killed and another was injured today in a crash during a test flight of Virgin Galactic's space tourism craft, SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo was lost. The jet that carried the ship aloft, WhiteKnightTwo, is fine. This was the 55th test flight for SpaceShipTwo and the 35th for WhiteKnightTwo.
Paired with the explosion of the NASA/Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on Tuesday, it's been a rough week for spaceflight.
Not to get all "Dubious News Hook Lets Me Confirm and Blog My Preexisting Views," but human deaths have a way of attracting the attention of regulators, and this point from Rand Simberg in Reason's February 2012 space-themed issue is worth keeping in mind: Risk is part of innovation, and we should let people continue to put their lives on the line if they do so with full understanding of those risks.
[Good space policy requires] smarter regulation to encourage entrepreneurship and accept risk. For instance, current law prevents the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Space Transportation (FAA-AST) from regulating the safety of passengers aboard spacecraft; it is constrained to regulating only those issues that affect uninvolved third parties.
The hand of the state has rested lightly on the space industry so far, thanks to that 2004 law, which imposed an eight-year moratorium on regulation. The view at the time was that until private space passenger vehicles actually took flight, the industry was too poorly understood to intelligently regulate. The moratorium is about to expire, and the House is willing to extend it to cover another eight years after flights begin. But the Senate is resisting the extension, demanding stricter regulation while simultaneously seeking to cut the budget of the FAA-AST. If the stalemate continues, the industry could wind up regulated out of existence before it even gets off the ground.
This FAA policy was hard won and may now be in jeopardy if politicians get in the mood to Do Something.