Private space race needs innovation, not excess regulation

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

Xcor Aerospace is offering a chauffeured ride into space for $95,000. SpaceX has an all-inclusive Mars package (round-trip, of course) for $500,000. And for half that price, Virgin Galactic will ferry people 68 miles above the Earth, beyond the reach of gravity.

None of these trips is available yet, however, and that last venture suffered a terrible setback when Virgin’s experimental SpaceShipTwo crashed in California’s Mojave Desert last week, killing its co-pilot. The incident was a sad reminder of the inherent dangers of space travel. But responding to it with elaborate new safety regulations could imperil an immensely promising new industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration issues licenses for space launches and permits for experimental flights. Since 2004, however, the agency has been prevented by law from regulating the design and operation of private spacecraft. The idea was to keep the FAA from obstructing the industry with well-meaning red tape while freeing companies to experiment with inventive new spacecraft.

That grace period may soon end. The provision preventing regulation is set to expire next year, and the FAA can write new rules in response to accidents, so the Virgin crash may lead to enhanced oversight. In September, the agency released a report that looked a lot like a blueprint for future safety mandates — and after last week’s calamities, Congress may prod it to do more to protect brave pilots like those on SpaceShipTwo.

That would be a mistake. The FAA should continue to ensure that the private space business doesn’t imperil the public. But ambitious experimentation remains vital to a young industry. Finding a sustainable business model would be harder if spacefarers were subject to anything like the rules that apply to the airline industry. And no amount of regulation can change the fact that space is a dangerous place — with clear risks for pilots and passengers alike.

Which suggests a more fundamental point. The history of human flight — from the Wright brothers to the de Havillands, from Chuck Yeager to Sally Ride — is one of risks taken, tragedies endured and ambitions realized despite the odds. The bravery of barnstormers and test pilots is part of the reason it’s now possible to fly from New York to London in a few hours, with little more to fear than jet lag and boredom.

The next phase of flight may be the most ambitious yet. Several billionaires are pursuing different approaches to reaching the cosmos — with varied designs, propulsion systems, business plans — and they should be free to innovate, make mistakes and try again. The dividends, for both science and commerce, could extend far beyond the business of ferrying rich tourists.

If they don’t want this promising era to end prematurely, Galactic and its peers will do everything possible to ensure the safety of their expensive spaceships and the humans inside them. The FAA, for its part, should continue to ensure public safety and offer advice — but otherwise should mostly just wish the spacefarers well.

Like their predecessors, this new generation of pioneers needs the freedom to experiment, even if it means taking serious risks. Let them go.

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