Question of the moment: What if having a vibrant space program requires bypassing NASA?
The question really means “What if having a vibrant space program requires bypassing the U.S. government as the primary space customer and space regulator?” That’s because NASA, the Air Force, and the NRO don’t build the space hardware or provide space services, but rather, operate things that are placed in space by aerospace contractors.
What the USG agencies do is provide “oversight” and sometimes “insight” into the myriad processes needed to get a satellite on orbit. Similarly, the FAA tries to mitigate risk by requiring compliance with procedures, rules, regulations, and the like.
Wayne Crews, writing at Forbes, has a few excellent observations (meaning great minds think alike) on the way ahead for commercial space:
But while it’s still early in the game, we should strive to keep regulators earthbound.
Earthbound is of course a sort of space-faring metaphor for largely out-of-the-way USG oversight, insight, and risk mitigation. Yet some regulator involvement will be required in order for commercial space providers to obtain insurance and to help build public confidence and trust in the endeavor (the effort, not the Space Shuttle Endeavor). Without any trust in commercial space, consumers of all sorts won’t be inclined to use it. Crews expands this idea in the second half of his article.
More from Crews:
We’ll inevitably need to revisit the global Outer Space Treaty…
Subsidies should be discouraged…
Why? Because if we don’t, the OST will continue to inhibit the commercial use of space and without such commercialization, space will continue to suffer the consequences of being largely dependent on government programs and subsidies. This means that space should be viewed as a frontier and not as an extraterrestrial commons (as the OST views space and do other platitudinous sayings such as ‘space reflects the common heritage of mankind’). A frontiers mentality has a goal of making life better on earth and that’s what free-markets are best at. Conversely, legacy government space programs have little or no interest in this area and are subject to regulatory capture.
Commercial space, in my mind, is closer to what the new space actors are doing and further from the space-tourism thing (go up to 100km, float around for a few seconds and then come home) that Branson has in mind. New space has the opportunity to create real value for Americans (energy production and materials); space tourism is a thrill-ride for the rich (to include the USG, which is more profligate than rich). The hope many have (and remember, hope is not a strategy) is that the economies of scale brought about by space tourism will focus more people on the things a robust (and not government dependent) space economy could provide.