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A Legislative Breakthrough?
I don't recall which one, but a few years ago, the mood at the Space Access Conference was pretty somber. X-33 had cratered without even flying, X-34 the same, the dreams of a "Teledesic winter," in which the skies would be blackened by LEO comsats and RLVs to deliver and service them, had been shown to be a fantasy, and the future for affordable space access looked grim to many. It didn't to me, because I had never held out hope for any of those things, but the conference generally had the air of a funeral.
This year's meeting was much more upbeat. Burt had just gotten his launch license and flown a couple weeks before, with good prospects for an X-Prize win this year, and the community was finally focused on the promising area of suborbital flight, a necessary transition for us to go through in order to get low-cost orbital flight.
While people were in a good mood coming into the conference, there was a lot of news there to further encourage them. The big news from the weekend, of course, was XCOR's new launch license. But this was just the most notable example of a growing trend--this is a real industry, with people making real investments, and bending real metal. The prize, and not just the X-Prize, appears to be real, and people with their eyes on it are focused on the real-world issues of regulation, insurance and marketing.
Of course, there were a couple technical surprises as well. John Powell's concept of a lighter-than-air vehicle to orbit was a new twist, and it's not obvious that it won't work.
Clark Lindsey has an extensive writeup, and I suspect that Jeff Foust will as well, perhaps in next week's issue of The Space Review, but I want to focus this post on Jim Muncy's talk, because as I said in the previous post, there are some interesting wrinkles in the new legislation that have been uncommented on so far. It's a revised version of the legislation introduced last fall, with a new bill number of HR 3752 (sorry, no permalink available--do a search on "HR 3752," and pull up the bill as passed), titled the "Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004." It has passed the House, and an identical version is in the Senate. I analyzed the previous version in October.
Clark was generous enough to provide me with his notes of Jim's talk, and this is based on them, my own recollection, and my own reading of the bill.
Jim started his presentation with a little history, pointing out two disastrous decisions made during the Clinton administration. The first was in taking away from the FAA its traditional role of promoting the aviation industry, because there was a perception that this conflicted with its responsibility to regulate and ensure that the industry flew safely. It was judged that the industry was mature enough that it didn't require such promotion, at least by the FAA.
Unfortunately, about the same time that this decision was made, another (probably unrelated) decision was made, in the interest of "reinventing government," to move AST from its own office reporting to the Secretary of Transportation, into the FAA. In other words, the regulation of a non-existent industry (reusable space transports) was being moved into an agency with no duty to or interest in promoting it. And of course, the best way to ensure safety, if you have no interest in the well being of the industry, is to simply eliminate any possibility of actually flying.
Under those circumstances, it's surprising that we've made as much progress as we have, but the new legislation is meant to undo some of the damage of those dual decisions.
Based on my quick read, and Jim Muncy's comments, there are three key aspects of the legislation that are new from last fall.
First, is this section (shown only in part):
(7) Section 70105 of title 49, United States Code, is amended by redesignating subsections (b) and (c) as subsections (c) and (d), respectively, and by inserting after subsection (a) the following new subsection:
Many in the community have been advocating this for years. It's an experimental rocket permit, analogous with an experimental aircraft certificate. It authorizes the holder to do the kinds of flight testing that Burt has been doing with his vehicle, and it allows a series of tests with a single permit, with much less paperwork than a full launch license.
It's another major step away from the original launch license mentality, and toward a regulatory regime that allows incremental testing. Like an EAC, it doesn't allow taking passengers for pay, but that can be done with a launch license after testing is complete.
Here's the next significant difference with last fall's legislation, and another step forward:
(17) Section 70112(b)(1) of title 49, United States Code, is amended--
That there is a requirement for reciprocal waivers means that Congress intends that this be a "fly at your own risk" regime, i.e., it will be viewed as something similar to Everest expeditions, rather than as aircraft passengers, with expectations of the kind of safety afforded by that industry. This will ease the liability and insurance burden considerably, and is vital to getting this industry off the ground (so to speak).
The bill also requires that AST issue licenses within 90 days, instead of the current 180, and to streamline their procedures to whatever degree necessary to achieve that goal. This will be a great challenge to the agency, considering that they issued Xcor's license just under the 180 day wire, but it will help accelerate progress for the licensees.
Jim mentioned one other aspect that was fascinating--he said that the legislation provides the Secretary with the authority to waive "all requirements of law" to grant a license. In other words, if (for example) the National Environmental Protection Act becomes too onerous in some particular case, the Secretary can grant relief. If true, this could be a huge breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can't find where in the legislation that such authority is granted. If anyone can provide some enlightenment on this, I'd appreciate it.
There is some resistance to the legislation from the large launch companies and insurers, who don't want to have to play on a level playing field with the startups. It's not clear whether there will be enough to derail it--it clearly wasn't in the House, but it's hard to get any kind of legislation through the Senate in an election year, regardless of its degree of controversy. Nonetheless, Jim remained hopeful that this bill will be authorized into law this year, and if it is, it represents a great step forward for the alternative space movement, and a maturing of the industry from infancy into at least toddling.
[Update at noon]
Gary Hudson emails, in response to my query:
70105(c)2(C) But it requires the intervention of the SecDOT plus consent of the affected agency, i.e., EPA. Chances of that actually happening are about the same as pigs flying...
[Update on Wednesday evening]
Normally, I hunt down and painfully kill people who attempt to correct me, but since it's the Great Man himself, and someone who I've known and loved for over two decades, I'll simply point out that Jim Muncy notes in comments:
Thanks very much for your kind write-up of my speech to Space Access last Friday.
So now you've got the word from the hors^H^H^H^Hman himself.
I should also add something that no one else noted, because Jim's comment reminds me. We should all thank Tim Hughes, Jim's successor on the committee staff, for making this legislation happen. One of the exercises that he had us do at the conference was to write a personal thank-you note to him for this legislation, and I encourage my readers to do the same.
[Update on Thursday morning]
Clark Lindsey has put up a page describing the JP Aerospace concept for light-than-air to orbit.
[May 5th update, as a result of the link from TechCentralStation]
There's more here on the legislation.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 28, 2004 10:04 AM
> > There is some resistance to the legislation from the large launch companies and insurers, who don't want to have to play on a level playing field with the startups.
Okay, let me join in the chorus to sing that legislation which promotes a level playing field and aids the efforts of the alt-space community is a good thing and should receive significant support from space advocate types.
That said, there are plenty of off-shore jurisdictions available if alt-space truly is on the cusp of a major breakthrough for low cost Earth to LEO access.
Therefore, is stupid regulation to protect the major players, well, stupid?
Sure it is and we need to change it ASAP. However, whenever I hear prognostications that alt-space will take off, once Washington DC gets its act together, well I just don't buy it.Posted by Bill White at April 28, 2004 12:36 PM
There are no practical offshore jurisdictions for Americans. You need to read up on this little thing called ITAR.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 28, 2004 12:47 PM
Try to go out of the U.S. and it is likely the State department will accuse you of trying to export missile technology. It has happened before.
I’m looking forward to hearing more about the “Airship to Orbit” concept. Unfortunately, JP doesn’t seem to have anything on their website yet about it. Sure, it may be a longshot, but it would be very nice if it worked out. Aside from cost, it could open up other markets – because g-forces would be nonexistent, it could transport heart, burn and other patients to zero-g hospitals.
From a quick Google search -
"Another extremely serious hindrance to private space activities in general is the export control regime. In 1998 Congress passed the Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act. That law transferred jurisdiction over exports from the Commerce Department to the State Department, which has been much stricter and slower in approving exports. Already the American satellite industry is being seriously harmed. We saw how the delay in authorizing the export of a tether helped kill the Mir space station. This law is harming the private space sector in general and certainly will hinder the emergence of private space travel."
Yup, good luck trying to export munitions . . . (as they would undoubtedly classify any decent sized rocket)Posted by VR at April 28, 2004 02:08 PM
Okay, suppose an alt-space RLV gets built inside the United States. By definition, an alt-space RLV will be inexpensive to manufacture and inexpensive to operate, otherwise launch costs of less than $100 per pound to LEO just won't happen.
Lots and lots of them get built by the space hotel people and the new space tourism folk.
What are the odds one or another flies off to China or Kiev and gets reverse engineered? Or the design documents get posted on the internet?
Then everyone can build low cost alt-space RLVs including the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and North Koreans. And the dastardly French.
Why wouldn't the Pentagon shut down any alt-space program that threatens to advance beyond sub-orbital? Or go into mass production?
= = =
Okay, I stand corrected on the orginal point.
American alt-space types cannot go overseas. And American alt-space types are hamstrung by national security concerns.
So why is anyone optimistic that the American private sector will produce ultra-low cost Earth to LEO access in the foreseeable future?
Posted by Bill White at April 28, 2004 03:38 PM
"Why wouldn't the Pentagon shut down any alt-space program that threatens to advance beyond sub-orbital? Or go into mass production?"
Why hasn't the Pentagon shut down the aviation industry?Posted by Rand Simberg at April 28, 2004 05:32 PM
I've talked to the JP Aerospace people before and actually have seen the Big Balloon. :-) They actually have launched rockets from balloon platforms. In the past, they used a group of weather balloons. The new balloon would help in that it has a really nice system for staying more or less in the same location or "loitering" (the number one cause of scuttling a launch was the balloon drifting out of their permitted launch area).
It should also be quite handy for tasks that involve loitering in one place for days or weeks. Cheaper than paying somebody to fly in a plane indefinitely.
Thanks very much for your kind write-up of my speech to Space Access last Friday.
Unfortunately, a casual reader might draw two innaccurate inferences from your piece.
First, the legislation does not require that AST issue licenses within 90 days. It requires that they issue experimental permits within 90 days. This will be a challenge for AST, but I am convinced they will be able to achieve this as they refocus their resources towards this new, dynamic industry.
Second, the legislation does not give the Secretary any authority to waive NEPA that he doesn't already have. That authority was written into the original CSLA. However, HR3752 explicitly reminds the Secretary of this authority, and mentions NEPA in report language.
The authority is not to simply "waive" NEPA, but rather waive by regulation. In other words, AST could promulgate a regulation that sets a standard for "environmentally clean" RLVs, specifying non-toxic and total quantity of propellants, and other vehicle system and flight profile characteristics, such that if one met the standard, NEPA would no longer apply.
My friend Gary Hudson is wrong, however, about EPA. The coordinating agency is the Council on Environmental Quality. Once these vehicles are flying, and repeatedly getting 'findings of no significant impact', there will be a strong paper trail to justify such a regulation which effectively replaces the NEPA requirement, rather than simply waiving it.
I realize that many of us would prefer not to have to obey this stupid law (NEPA), but it is in fact a requirement levied on FAA/AST, not on the launch company. We just have to deal with the consequences.
Posted by Jim Muncy at April 28, 2004 07:41 PM
Karl, I know about balloon launch, but this goes just a liiitttle beyond that - from the Hobbyspace review:
"John revealed for the first time that the primary long term goal of this diverse array of projects is to develop an airship that will go all the way to orbit. The 6000ft long V ship would start from a high altitude "Dark Sky Station" at 200k ft. Using electric propulsion,
Bill, Columbia has shown, again, just how dangerous a monolithic space program can be. It is also just a bit annoying, especially to military types, that we are relying on THE RUSSIANS to keep the space station going. It is like Sputnik all over again. It just might occur to some of them that developing a non-government space effort is important to national security.
There have been private space attempts before, but nothing like what is going on now. This is a real space race, with real hardware being built. It is starting to be taken seriously be people outside the core group. Some of those people have the money and contacts to influence politics, and probably have been. There HAVE been government blocks before, but it definitely seems to be changing. I'm not sure if the market will develop yet, but I think it has gone too far for it to be blocked by idiotic government drones.Posted by VR at April 29, 2004 01:03 AM
So this ascender uses electric propulsion to reach orbit? Is this an ion drive? How can it produce enough thrust to get it to orbit? What is it using as a power source?Posted by B.Brewer at April 29, 2004 05:56 AM
I support private sector space. Big time.
Yet I also believe private sector space suppliers are largely meaningless without private sector DEMAND. Today, we have a single payor space industry. All revenues are taxpayer generated.
(Like Hillary's health care plan - single payor.)
People other than taxpayers need to pay for Earth to LEO. That is why a private sector space hotel, launched today and serviced by Soyuz (at least for today) would be the greatest possible kickstart for the alt-space community.
Musk's Falcon will not beat the Russians on price. While an excellent move to break the Boeing / Lockmart du-opoly, it still isn't really private sector IMHO because revenues will be funded by the taxpayers.Posted by Bill White at April 29, 2004 11:28 AM
Unfortunately, I just don't see any real details on the airship yet. I assume it is supposed to have a high thrust low exhaust velocity ion drive. But, reaction mass is? Power source is? Payload mass is? Etc. I might guess a rectenna for power, but who knows?
Bill, I'd be very surprised to see anyone spring for an LEO hotel today. It is just too big a jump. A suborbital flight market developing into an LEO market is far more likely.
While the private demand for manned space flight today is unclear (it is something of a chicken and egg problem), there clearly is private demand for comsat launch. Governments are big players, but all revenues are NOT taxpayer generated.Posted by VR at April 29, 2004 01:24 PM
FYI, here is a permalink to the HR3752 "bill summary and status" page:
From there you can access the text of the legislation as well as other information.
And yes, there will be an article or two about Space Access '04 in upcoming issues of The Space Review, including one on the regulatory issues discussed there.Posted by Jeff Foust at April 29, 2004 01:42 PM
Sadly my website remains "almost finished"
Financing for an LEO hotel:
Cost? $500 million to $700 million
Build it with one spare ISS-Zarya module and 1 TransHab and 1 multi-port docking module. Try out Bob Forward's tether power generation ideas.
Launch via 3 Proton shots. Recall that the Russians have a second ISS-Zarya sitting idle, right now.
A one shot shuttle derived is MY first choice. (Tack on the Space Island Group idea and keep the external tank as a potential zero-gee gymansium and soundstage.)
A lower inclination is why I would prefer to fly from Florida or Kouru yet if Proton is the only available booster, then 51 degrees it is.
= = =
Paying for it?
$150 - $200 million for name rights. Hilton, Hyatt, whatever. Look at how much FedEx has actually paid for the name rights to a DC football stadium.
$100 - $150 miscellaneous advertising. Verizon (can you hear me now?) etc. . . If Lebron James is worth $100 million the ability to show hotel employees eating McDonalds while wearing Nike logo flight suits is worth $100 million, easy.
Raise the rest of the equity by selling limited partnership / personal seat license shares. If James Cameron or Tom Hanks buys a 10% stake for $25 million (10 x $25 million = $250 million) he gets a perk of exclusive rights to film feature films at the hotel. Oprah Winfrey (if she buys a 10% share) gets exclusive talk show opportunities. (Okay, Rand, make that Bill O'Reilly, rather than Oprah.)
Or maybe CNN and FOX duke it out to buy exclusive rights to broadcast live from LEO.
Partners also have a first right of refusal to buy trips to the hotel. Its like a timeshare on a corporate jet. $25 million to buy the guaranteed right to buy a week or two in LEO?
With Transhab, there is room for 4 guests and 2 employees. With 3 docking ports 2 Soyuz and 1 Progress can dock at any one time.
Heck, Starsem might well buy a few shares as part of a deal to very, very seriously ramp up Soyuz production.
How low could Soyuz go if Space Adventures offered to buy 24 flights per year?
= = =
More details when I find time to finish my website. ;-)Posted by Bill White at April 29, 2004 01:52 PM
The ascender is 6000 feet long?? Won't have no problem seeing that baby in orbit. It makes the Enterprise-E look like a minnow.
A large flying triangle that makes no noise?? Hmmmm! Sounds familiar! I wondering if the USAF has already built some of these and has them at Area 51?Posted by Mike Puckett at April 29, 2004 03:02 PM
We have three distinct options for our electric propulsion. We aren't talking too much about them though except the third place finisher. The one we really want is classified at the moment and I have no desire to spend time in jail after talking about it too freely. 8)
Remember that the lower altitude ascender never goes higher than the station while the other one lever goes lower. That turns out to be a key element in the architecture.
Also remember that we think we can make the first two components (lower ascender and station) pay for themselves in the commercial arena, so don't expect us to be begging for huge sums of money we all know are practically impossible to raise in our arena.
I have a heck of a time keeping up with the technology changes occuring that help us improve our lower ascender and station. Every time I do, though, our systems get lighter and more capable. I have every reason to believe we are on the eve of a transportation revolution fueled by the rapid changes driven in other technology markets. Don't blink. This will happen very quickly, I think.Posted by Alfred Differ at May 2, 2004 03:08 AM
Good to have you here. Question: Have you considered using a version of you skystation as a re-positionable communications relay platform over large metropolotian areas. I would think it would have tremendous potential as a mobile C3 platform.
Not to mention Radar, survelence and as a platform for an ABM laser always above the weather.Posted by Mike Puckett at May 2, 2004 08:03 AM
Could you clear up a few things about the orbital ascender?
First: what is the desired thrust/weight ratio?
Second: how fast will it be traveling in the atmosphere, and what is the L/D ratio at those speeds?Posted by Paul Dietz at May 2, 2004 05:24 PM
Let's move our ATO stuff to the more recent thread starter.
Yes... we have considered that. If you know a customer that would want to buy them for that purpose, let us know. 8) Running a telecommunications company isn't among our core competencies, so we'd rather sell or partner with those who do know their niche.
Eventually the vehicle must be doing mach 25. At what altitude it does it remains to be seen. So much depends on the materials, power, and propulsion systems that remain within reach of our budget.Posted by Alfred Differ at May 2, 2004 06:29 PM
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