The breakthroughs were right around the corner, they promised. Soon people would be taking regular trips to the cosmos, and the era of commercial spaceflight would finally become reality.
And so in 2004, the young space companies lobbied for an extended “learning period” that would allow them to develop their rockets and space vehicles without all of the burdensome federal regulations that would hamper innovation and prevent the industry from taking off.
They got their wish for a regulatory break, but the advances were slower to come by.
Now, more than a decade later, the industry says that this time it is really on the verge of that long-awaited breakthrough. And once again, Congress granted the industry an eight-year grace period that supporters say will prevent the Federal Aviation Administration from stunting the growth of an industry that has been largely driven by a class of billionaires with huge ambitions.
Industry officials and their backers in Congress hailed the passage of the Space Act last week as an important step that will pave the way for businesses to soon take tourists to space and make the cosmos more accessible and affordable.
The bill would also extend operations on the International Space Station through 2024, and allow U.S. companies the rights to resources they mine in space — on asteroids or on the moon, for example.
But the heart of the bill grapples with a tough question: How should the government regulate a growing industry that is dangerous but also could open up space to the masses the way airline travel was transformed decades ago?
“Everybody is walking into unknown territory, and it’s difficult to regulate something you don’t understand fully,” said Michael Listner, the founder of Space Law and Policy Solutions.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the bill’s sponsor, said that today’s industry leaders are pioneers, pushing the boundaries in the spirit of the Wright brothers and Chuck Yeager. The legislation, he said, would “unite law with innovation, allowing the next generation of pioneers to experiment, learn and succeed without being constrained by premature regulatory action.”
The legislation would expand “the American experiment and environment that led to not only pioneer railroads, automobiles and planes but to turn these technological advancements into sustainable businesses,” said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
But others say space travel is extraordinarily dangerous, and risky — an endeavor that requires more oversight, not less.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) pointed out that the commercial space industry has had three catastrophic failures in the last 13 months — Orbital ATK and SpaceX rockets that were to supply cargo to the International Space Station blew up, and a Virgin Galactic test flight crashed, killing one of the pilots.
“With these major accidents as a backdrop, I think it is unconscionable that we are here today moving this bill in its current form,” she said. “When the inevitable accident with significant loss of life occurs — whether it’s a year from now or five years from now — the American public will look back at what we are doing today and ask how we could be so shortsighted.”
In the last several years, the commercial space industry has made some major leaps, giving hope that it is finally on the verge of a tipping point.
SpaceX, the Hawthorne-based company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, has won multibillion-dollar NASA contracts to fly cargo and, eventually, astronauts to the space station.
The company is building its own private spaceport in southern Texas for commercial launches, and also appears to be on the verge of winning a lucrative contract to launch a national security satellite for the Pentagon.
After years of relative quiet, Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, has also shown some progress. This year, it launched an unmanned rocket to what’s considered the edge of space in a test flight. And it is reportedly planning another test flight soon. (Bezos owns the Washington Post.)
Despite its crash last year, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is forging ahead with plans to fly tourists to suborbital space — though it’s not clear when that will happen.
Meanwhile, SpaceX and Blue Origin have taken over historic launch pads in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, signs that the commercial sector is emerging into what was once exclusively the government’s domain.
And both have designed their rockets so that the booster stage, the most expensive part of the rocket, would be recovered and reused — instead of getting ditched in the ocean.
Once they are able to perfect that — and Musk has come close twice — the cost of space travel would drop dramatically. And that, analysts say, would be a major breakthrough that could change how humans fly to space.
Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for the Washington Post.