Space

Is America Too Bound by Red Tape to Support Space Entrepreneurs?

Regulators haven't kept up with the times when it comes to the changing nature of ventures into space.

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Does the United States still have what it takes to venture into a new frontier? It's a question we need to ask as SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, face off with regulators over when and how the government will permit the pioneering commercial space company to test its rockets. While there's little question that humans will continue exploring beyond the Earth, Americans may be too bound by red tape to lead such efforts.

In December, SpaceX conducted a test of its Starship SN8 prototype that saw the Buck Rogers-looking craft rise and descend as hoped, with the small problem of an explosion on landing. The "rapid unscheduled disassembly" (RUD) wasn't unexpected, though. Elon Musk had earlier warned that it was a very real possibility for the experimental craft.

Recently, we discovered that the test flight wasn't supposed to happen at all in the eyes of regulators.

"Prior to the Starship SN8 test launch in December 2020, SpaceX sought a waiver to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations," a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson told journalists. "After the FAA denied the request, SpaceX proceeded with the flight. As a result of this non-compliance, the FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident. All testing that could affect public safety at the Boca Chica, Texas, launch site was suspended until the investigation was completed and the FAA approved the company's corrective actions to protect public safety."

After a regulator-induced delay, the next test flight—of the Starship SN9—launched on February 2, with an outcome similar to that of its predecessor.

"During the landing flip maneuver, one of the Raptor engines did not relight and caused SN9 to land at high speed and experience a RUD," the company reports.

As the test flights continue, so do disputes between SpaceX and the FAA.

"Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure," Musk protested before the SN9 launch. "Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars."

The SpaceX founder isn't alone in pointing out that regulators haven't kept up with the times when it comes to the changing nature of ventures into space.

"The era of commercial space travel and the rise of abundant spacefaring nations has led to an increase in space activity, which has outpaced international space laws—laws that were originally imagined for state-sponsored space travel in an arena with only two spacefaring states," Juan Davalos wrote in a 2015 article for Emory International Law Review.

"Existing space law has not kept up with the growth in the private sector, and the United States lacks a comprehensive regulatory regime," Brianna Rauenzahn, Jasmine Wang, Jamison Chung, Peter Jacobs, Aaron Kaufman, and Hannah Pugh chimed in last summer in the University of Pennsylvania Law School's The Regulatory Review.

Worse, the regulatory regime that the U.S. does have, inherited from an era of government-dominance of space, lends itself (as do all intrusive rules) to abuse. That can come from "you will respect mah authoritah" resentment of anybody who bucks bureaucracy. But it can also reflect government seat warmers' discomfort with the unfamiliar and threatening world of private entrepreneurial activity.

"While at first glance the FAA/SpaceX dust-up over their rapid rocket development might be looked at as a rich entrepreneur breaking the rules, and a federal agency trying to keep the public safe, it is actually an example of a government organization—the FAA—unable to distinguish between innovation and execution," cautions Silicon Valley's Steve Blank, for whom Elon Musk once interned. "In innovation failure is part of the process. Test rockets blow up, test airplanes may crash. If you do not push the envelope and discover the limits of your design you're not innovating fast enough or far enough."

The aviation industry got its start in an entrepreneurial culture that balanced risk and reward to the satisfaction of innovators, not regulators. Orville Wright was badly injured, and a passenger killed in a disastrous early flight. Otto Lilienthal was one of the early pioneers who died as a result of his efforts. Their experiments might well have exceeded the "maximum public risk allowed" by government regulations had those rules existed at the time, but fortunately they did not. Instead, the innovators and their supporters did much as they pleased within their own risk tolerances, to the world's benefit.

That's certainly not the case today, though even the FAA's political masters recognize that the agency needs to change. The FAA is under orders "to streamline the regulations governing commercial space launch and reentry licensing" under rulemaking that "replaces prescriptive requirements with performance-based criteria."

But there's no assurance that "streamline" means easing regulation rather than making it more restrictive.

Advocates of reform with regards to commercial space flight have widely varying ideas. Georgetown University Law Center's Hope Babcock wants to prevent the extension of private property rights to space so that everything beyond the Earth's surface is held in common. By contrast, the Mercatus Center's Eli Dourado urged Congress "to consider blanket authorization for all nongovernmental operations in space that do not cause tangible harm to other parties."

Space's X's Elon Musk is pretty clear about what he wants. When the Wall Street Journal asked him in December 2020 what government could do to foster innovation, he replied that "a lot of the time, the best thing that government can do is just get out of the way."

If U.S. regulators won't get out of the way of space entrepreneurs, then maybe this is no longer the right country for those entrepreneurs. Modern innovators might be best served by moving their efforts to locales that are more willing to let them decide which risks are worth taking.

NEXT: Is There a Future for Fusionism?

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  1. “Does the United States still have what it takes to venture into a new frontier? ”

    You mean as an entity? Why the fuck would we want that vs. actual entrepreneurs doing it?

    1. They created a “Space Force” out of segments of the USAF, you know. I wish force and violence wasn’t a “thing”, but you know what? It is! Till we ALL become peaceful, of our own free will… FORCE is needed to restrain bad actors! So that is ONE reason that, sad to say, there WILL be Government Almighty presence in space! And on the moon! (Do you have a better fix?)

      https://spacenews.com/moon-patrols-could-be-a-future-reality-for-the-u-s-military/
      Moon patrols could be a future reality for Space Force
      by Sandra Erwin — November 2, 2020
      “It’s a brave new world for the DoD to embark on,” said Capt. David Buehler, manager of the AFRL experiment named CHPS, for Cislunar Highway Patrol System.

      1. SG1 is fiction, dude.

        1. Why are you replying to yourself like we don’t know you’re SQRLSY you fucking drunk?

          1. Because after repeatedly outing himself as SQRSLY, he has to draw the line again to convince those that don’t already know his shtick that he runs sock puppets for a living. He wants to convince people he is not SQRSLY.

            Alas, even in his pathetic attempt to create the impression he is a distinct poster, he failed. Why? Because SQRSLY posts incomprehensible nonsense and, to understand it, you have to be SQRSLY.

            Ipso facto, by responding to SQRSLY, it proves that sarcasmic is SQRSLY.

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      2. >>So that is ONE reason that, sad to say, there WILL be Government Almighty

        idiot sarcasmic thinks government needs a space-monopoly on force

        1. “Monopoly on force” is a DAMNED good DEFINITION of Government Almighty! What is better? Instead of name-calling like an arrogant 2nd grade bully on the playground, maybe we could hear your solution instead? Genetically re-engineer humans to do away with greedy violent tendencies among some of us? A wild melee of local warlords in space, and on the moon? Or shall we send Elon Musk up there (after taxing and regulating him half to death down here), and make him pay for ALL of his own defense, up there?

          Instead of name-calling, do you think you could suggest your alternatives, and tell us HOW they would work, and WHY they would be better? But doing THAT requires actual SMARTS, and WORK, doesn’t it?

          1. idiot sarcasmic still thinks government needs a space-monopoly on force

            1. DilIinger the power-pig authoritarian wants to take all of Elon Musk’s guns away from him, as we (maybe might) “allow” him to get on on his ride to the Moon! Elon will have to defend himself up there, all alone, with moon rocks, and nothing else!

              1. idiot sarcasmic still stupidly thinks government needs a space-monopoly on force

                spam flagged

  2. Good thing you endorsed Biden and spent millions of Chuckie Kochs dollars making in-kind contributions to his campaign while throwing hysterical fits that Trump wasn’t a REAL deregulator even though he rescinded more regulations and passed fewer new ones than any presidency since WWII.

    Oh also, hiring crony capitalists with massive lobbying arms to outsource government space exploration is not “space entrepreneurship”.

    1. Trump DID do SOME good deregulation… But don’t you DARE blow on a cheap plastic flute w/o permission!!!

      To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the flute police, please see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

        1. Do you think we are all SOOOO proud of your computer skills today, DilIinger? Did you have a good bowel movement today, would you like to “share” that with us ass well? Did you overcome your urge to fuck roadkill today, and do you want to brag about that, ass well, asshole?

          (Are you offering training on your AWESOME computer skills?)

          1. “brag about that, ass …..”

            That ass baby! This my ass! You like that ass??

            ::winks over shoulder::

      1. The trouble with that is, absent action by Congress to amend the medical device provisions of the FFDCA, there isn’t much that can be done formally to remedy (heh) the situation. Someone would have to submit an application to change the rules to allow marketing of a lung flute without a prescription. Nobody in the business is going to bother with that, since it’s so easy to change the instructions in such a way as to remove health aspects of such a thing, turning into a General Use Device (similarly to a stepladder that isn’t labeled for use in operating rooms, or a box of sodium bicarbonate that’s not promoted for use in making dialysate for hemodialyzers but is simply bought at retail by dialysis clinics) that it doesn’t pay to try to get it onto the market as a nonprescription medical device. So then it would be up to an independent sponsor or the administration itself. And since this is merely one type of device out of so many, they had their hands full and would be unlikely to single the lung flute out for such a deregulatory initiative.

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    2. Take your meds Ronny.

  3. We used to say “It’s a free country.”

    Now we say “Who said you can do that?”

    1. We used to say “It’s a free country.”

      The only place I hear that anymore is when I’m watching old TV shows from the ’50s and ’60s.

  4. That’s always the problem with regulating innovation, the regulators have to stay one step ahead of the innovators. We haven’t quite managed to figure out how to foresee the unforeseeable, but I’m confident that if we keep working at it we can get ‘er done. I think the rule about never doing anything for the first time shows some real promise.

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  6. “Does the United States still have what it takes to venture into a new frontier?”

    Only if by new frontier you mean masses of peasants on subsistence farms, directed by a feudal bureaucracy and rewarded only by the institutionalized ethics of organic back-to-nature and farm-to-table, then sure.

    “The aviation industry got its start in an entrepreneurial culture that balanced risk and reward to the satisfaction of innovators, not regulators.”

    And now, of course, woke people can foresee all the terrible consequences of any industrialized technology, and would have burned the Wright brothers at the stake.

    1. The Wright Brothers (a pair of bicycle shop entrepreneurs) invested a total of one thousand dollars developing the world’s first practical airplane. Meanwhile, the US government had blown 70K (a lot of money in 1900) on their own effort to develop a flying machine, with the Army and the Smithsonian working together (even drawing in famed telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell), resulting in nothing more than a spectacular crash into the Potomac River.

      The Wright Brothers tried twice to sell their plane to the US Army, but were told to come back when they had achieved horizontal flight with a passenger, something they had gone way beyond for 2 years. So they went to France, where the French newspapers called them fakers for a year, until Wilbur made the first public demonstrations at Le Mans, literally flying circles (and figure-eights) around the competition.

      Only then did the US get back to them, and Orville’s crash occurred while demonstrating the plane to the Army (the first passenger fatality was an Army officer riding with him when one of the propellers fell apart and wrecked the plane’s controls).

      1. Since the Wright Brothers’ early flights were in remote and sparsely populated Kitty Hawk, few believed they had really gone much beyond the short, straight-line glider flights that others had previously attempted.

        Even when they returned to Dayton to work on improved and more practical airplane versions, news coverage was almost non-existent. The first reporter who really broke the story and sensed the significance was Amos Root, the author of a beekeeping journal! (the equivalent of a blogger these days) He offered to share his story free of charge with Scientific American, who turned him down, saying if the Wright Brothers were really flying around Ohio, intrepid newspaper reporters would have been writing about it already.

        1. Interesting.
          Sounds like everyone had a case of top men.

      2. And the US Army and Navy were not impressed enough with Mahlon Loomis’s demonstration of wireless telegraphy in 1865.

  7. One of my first jobs was to work in an Occidental Petroleum plant in El Cajon, California in the mid-1970s. As the lab guy, I had to perform tests and report gas emissions to the San Diego County air board. We had a gas chromatograph, it being technology about a decade old at the time, so I used it to get the testing and reporting done, but was threatened with jail for doing so.
    Turns out, the law specifically required the testing be done by Orsat, which used glassware and chemical solutions. We bought a set and I read the included manual. The photos demonstrating how to hold up the volumetric sep funnel showed a guy with a celluloid collar – the manual was copyrighted in 1923.
    Since none of the people enforcing the laws and none of them making the laws had any technical education – most were lawyers or history majors in college – all were playing it safe by following rules that wouldn’t get them in any possible trouble.

  8. It’s really not as simple as telling regulators to get out of the way (though, they should).

    The current regulatory environment is a result of the synergism between corporate safety culture, government executive agencies, and the judicial/tort system. Those three factors combine to provide every incentive for risk mitigation. There are potential profits for undertaking large risks, but if entire industries are operating under the same safety-laden procedures, then that takes away the competitive pressure to innovate. If the regulatory agencies step aside, you still have the bureaucratic inertia of most of the industry, and you still have the throng of lawyers chomping at the bit to sue individuals or companies into oblivion in liability suits.

    Musk, for all his douchebaggery, is one of the few entrepreneurs willing to take on all that risk from bucking established industry players, crossing government regs, and exposure to liability lawsuits. It’s a wonder his companies are still around. A lot of folks think it’s going to be the laws of physics, or a failure to ultimately turn a profit, that will be his undoing. I think it will be lawsuits that finally bankrupt him.

    1. I hope you’re wrong, but we’ll see! (About the slime-sucking parasite lawyers, I mean).

      Here’s some GOOD news! Senator Shelby has been a REAL asshole about wasting money on the SLS, as those of us who follow space developments closely, know. He’s retiring! Good riddance!

      https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/02/so-long-senator-shelby-key-architect-of-sls-rocket-wont-seek-reelection/

      So long Senator Shelby: Key architect of SLS rocket won’t seek reelection
      Shelby said NASA’s exploration of space will “always” go through Alabama.

      1. Unfortunately, it will take more than one different senator to axe the SLS. That’s one hell of a jobs program, and there’s lots of bipartisan support for that boondoggle.

        Although, the program itself might be flailing and incompetent enough to garner the public support necessary to finally kill it. The failed green run test the other week will probably push the maiden flight back into 2022… 5 years past schedule (and 10’s of billions over-budget).

    2. Government Almighty boondoggle…

      NASA will pay a staggering $146 million for each SLS rocket engine
      The rocket needs four engines and it is expendable.

      https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/05/nasa-will-pay-a-staggering-146-million-for-each-sls-rocket-engine/

      1. You’re posting relevant interesting articles with decent commentary that’s intelligible.

        Keep it up.

        1. Might be, but the rep means it gets flagged, and a ‘refresh’ hit; once you get a rep, it takes a while to change it.
          In spaz’s case, figure several years, starting with abject apologies for his TDS-addled shit in the first sentence of every post.
          Or, flag, refresh.

    3. Here’s another one, about political suppression of promising space tech, for political reasons, which is even worse than the inefficient per-state spreading of jobs goodies…

      Below shows we are FINALLY moving in the right direction, at least…

      https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/07/nasa-agrees-to-work-with-spacex-on-orbital-refueling-technology/
      NASA agrees to work with SpaceX on orbital refueling technology

      Out-take from there is below…

      The rocket program mostly benefited the Alabama space center and was championed by Alabama State Senator Richard Shelby. The potential of in-space fuel storage and transfer threatened the SLS rocket because it would allow NASA to do some exploration missions with smaller and cheaper rockets. As one source explained at the time, “Senator Shelby called NASA and said if he hears one more word about propellant depots he’s going to cancel the Space Technology program.”

      1. Come on, sarc. What happened? Where is the usual “OMG Gay Giggle Goldflags BURN DEMOCRACY for your OranGe Turd LOVER, ass well, is that What you are saying, GURGLE?” routine?

    4. If todays regulators existed in 1491 America would have never been found, again, since boats would have been outlawed until there was proof of 100% fail safe

  9. “rapid unscheduled disassembly”

    That’s the woke way to describe any kind of vehicle crash…

    1. Its been an in-joke for the aerospace industry for well over 50 years now its like lithobraking (crashing).

  10. Apparently not, since the USA is the only country that actually has any space entrepreneurs.

  11. If U.S. regulators won’t get out of the way of space entrepreneurs, then maybe this is no longer the right country for those entrepreneurs. Modern innovators might be best served by moving their efforts to locales that are more willing to let them decide which risks are worth taking.

    Maybe there’s an island in the south Pacific somewhere that Musk could just buy and do whatever he wants? I’m not sure if there’s any government on Earth that would be more permissive for the kinds of stuff he’s doing. Even if there were, regulators tend to freak out and overreact when rockets explode, even if “the public” that they pretend to care so much about wasn’t in any actual danger.

  12. It’s a question we need to ask as SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, face off with regulators over when and how the government will permit the pioneering commercial space company to test its rockets.

    Musk is moving Tesla from CA to TX. He can just as easily move his space operations to Mexico.

  13. SpaceX is planning on water launches in the Gulf. They just announced they would be launching a lunar xfer module to orbit the moon for less than 3/4 the cost of just the 4 engines on the SLS ($350 million). The high cost of the engines are because they are reusable Space Shuttle engines. That will be discarded with each launch. I have done work for SLS. It is an embarrassment to this country.

  14. As little as five years ago, the rocket photograph leading this post would have had some puerile, but funny, alt text encoded. Now I suppose Reason is too woke and sophisticated for that.

    1. “Look at those flaps, definitely not a Jewish rocket.”

    2. I miss the snarky alt-texts. Can’t have any of that now.

  15. You have violated Betteridge’s law of headlines

    The police will be arriving shortly. Please remain where you are. 🙂

  16. How does SpaceX exceed the maximum allowable risk but that guy who died in Riverside launching his own test rocket not?

  17. So while Elon Musk is praised by climate change alarmists for making lots of electric cars, he’s building space rockets that burn far more fuel and emit far more carbon than John Kerry’s jet.

  18. Too vague. I need a definition of “America”.

  19. Whelp they can always move their launch facilities to friendly countries. I mean the southern border is open for business with no checks on covid so there’s one option.

  20. That’s always the problem with regulating innovation, the regulators have to stay one step ahead of the innovators. We haven’t quite managed to figure out how to foresee the unforeseeable, but I’m confident that if we keep working at it we can get ‘er done. I think the rule about never doing anything for the first time shows some real promise.

    https://www.turbo1.co/2021/02/2021-ford-f150-raptor-review.html

  21. In fact, everything is a little different. There are no problems with our space industry and there will not be any. This news does not mean that America refuses to support its entrepreneurs in the space industry, but rather it is more like a temporary rearrangement of priorities in connection with the current global situation. Thanks to Trump, we have indeed been able to overcome unemployment, but this is not the end. After all, China is gradually gaining the pace of economic development and is already literally breathing down our backs in terms of total GDP. So everything that our government does is focused primarily on the safety and health of its citizens, and secondarily on economic development. So there’s nothing to worry about. I talked to the engineers from Engre, who follow similar news. By the way, I will be happy to discuss this with you and share my experience. Good luck to everyone!
    Cheers.

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