Transterrestrial Musings

Defend Free Speech!

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay

Site designed by

Powered by
Movable Type 4.0
Biting Commentary about Infinity, and Beyond!

« Pitchers' Duel | Main | The Problem With A Story Like This »

Hofstadter's Law

That's the recursive bit of wisdom that Douglas Hofstadter came up with, that goes "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law."

Jeff Foust has a good example of it today, as he examines the state of the suborbital industry. It looks now like no one is likely to enter commercial service prior to 2010, unless Armadillo can make it. Which brings up a little problem.

When the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) was passed in 2004, the industry got regulatory relief for eight years--until 2012--in which FAA-AST would not regulate the vehicles with respect to passenger safety, as long as there were no accidents involving passenger loss. This was in recognition of the fact that a) the agency didn't really know how to do that and b) if it attempted to do so, the industry might be still born as a result of a costly and time-consuming regulatory overburden. The eight-year period was provided to allow the companies time to develop and test vehicle design and operational concepts, with informed consent of the passengers, that would provide a basis for the development of such regulations as the industry matured (as occurred in the aviation industry in the twenties and thirties). In light of the SS1 flight in fall of that year, there was an expectation that there would be other vehicles flying in another two or three years (as Jeff notes--Virgin was predicting revenue service in 2007), which would have provided a five-year period for this purpose.

But if few, or none are flying until 2010, that leaves only two years before the FAA's regulatory power kicks in, which will be an insufficient amount of time to meet the intended objectives of the original maturing period.

Assuming that the logic still holds (and it certainly does for me, and I assume most of the industry and the Personal Spaceflight Federation) the most sensible thing to do would be to simply extend the period out to, say, 2018. Unfortunately (at least in regard to this issue), the most sensible thing is unlikely to happen.

In 2006, control of the Congress passed to the Democrats, which means that Jim Oberstar of Wisconsin took over as chairman of the relevant committee. He was opposed to the regulatory relief, railing against it as a "tombstone mentality" (whatever that means). He was unmoved by the argument that overregulating now would save passengers, but only at the cost of none of them ever getting to fly. Being in the minority at the time, he lost the battle, but now that he's in charge, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get an extension from him. In fact, even an attempt to do so might result in losing it altogether if the issue is revisited under his jurisdiction.

For those hoping for what would seem to require a miracle--Republicans regaining control of at least the House, this would be one more reason to wish for that, if they're fans of this nascent industry. Either that, or at least hope that Oberstar (and his partner in dumbness, Vic Fazio) moves to a different committee.

[Afternoon update]

Not that it affects the point in any way, but as a commenter points out, I goofed above. Oberstar is from Minnesota. I could have sworn he was a Badger.


0 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Hofstadter's Law.

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Brock wrote:

If Obama can pivot on Iraq, surely this guy can pivot on an issue none of his constituents really give a damn about. Folks in the minority position often disagree on principle, but the economics of the issue often drives the decision come crunch time.

This is something to keep an eye on, not lose sleep over.

Rand Simberg wrote:

If Obama can pivot on Iraq, surely this guy can pivot on an issue none of his constituents really give a damn about.

I didn't say he couldn't. But there's absolutely no reason to believe that he will. He seems to sincerely believe this.

Anonymous wrote:

And then there was what Bill Gates said, (paraphrasing) that people tend to overestimate the amount of change that will take place over 5 years, and underestimate the change over 10.

I think that's closer to the truth and than Hofstadter's Law. People tend to think linearly, whereas the rate of progress (I would guess) is more like an exponential. In the early part of the curve it underperforms a straight line estimate, but over time it can dramatically outperform it. Assuming the thing you're looking at takes off at all, that is.

Jim Bennett wrote:

This is, and will remain, below the radar of either McCain or Obama. A President isn't going to use up his political markers with a subcommittee chairman on something this small. He will defer to the chairman. Our best hope is that Oberstar is "Peter principled" up to the chairmanship of a different committee or that the Republicans retake the house in 2010. Either is possible but not predictable.

This is why it would have been better to have written the bill language as "five years after the first revenue suborbital flight licensed by the FAA in the US."

Curt Thomson wrote:

Oberstar is from Duluth, Minnesota's 8th district.

Sam Dinkin wrote:

I think we may just get a regulation first, flights second. It won't be optimal with hind sight, but at least some more regulatory risk can be retired in 2012. Ironic that a favorable law could end up slowing deployment rather than expediting it.

Rand Simberg wrote:

Ironic that a favorable law could end up slowing deployment rather than expediting it.

To what are you referring? There's no evidence that the law has slowed deployment.

gm wrote:

about private companies' spaceflights... I believe that MY (1.5 years ago) "law" could be much close to reality...

Karl Hallowell wrote:

Gaetano, your multicolored text is a blight upon the internet. I recommend losing the red and blue colors. Maybe if you have a really important point, you can use it. Second, find some way to put landmarks in that text. A common way is to use subsection headers or to embed pictures.

I think the 50 year lagged idea is flawed. Your Sputnik timeline is off. Orbital Sciences launched a satellite on the Pegasus in 1990. You're ignoring data points like geosynchronous satellites (commercial versions followed the government ones rather quickly), satellite constellations (the Missile Defense Alarm System was completed over 1960-1966 and Iridium was active by 1998), and Bigelow's efforts (NASA has yet to deploy an inflatable structure of the size of the Genesis projects). To match the NASA version of lunar exploration, someone would have to fund a ten year Apollo-like program around 2011. That's a lot of money, way too little time, and poor return.

In summary, private development of space is going to occur at its own pace. Some things will be completed well shy of 50 years and some things might well never happen.

gm wrote:


what you say is true if we include in the "Private Space Industry" companies like Boeing, Orbital, etc. that have developed their rockets and sat thanks to NASA and DoD contracts then (like Orbital with its Pegasus) used the know how gained with these contracts to build and launch something of "independent" or "commercial"

but, in my article (and "law") I refer ONLY to TRUE private companies (aka "" companies) like SpaceX, Bigelow, Virgin, etc. that do/will do everything with THEIR OWN MONEY (not thanks to NASA, ESA, military or SatTV money)

under this "law" SpaceX is no longer a TRUE "" company since received funds from NASA for COTS... but other companies still are true (non-NASA, non-DoD) companies and my "law" applies to them... not to Boeing or Orbital

Mike Puckett wrote:

Oh no, its found this board.

Time to practice your advise to Clark Rand!

Eric Weder wrote:

Tombstone comes from a book about air disasters and the relevant regulating authorities:

If I recall, the book's theme is that the level of passenger deaths in the aviation industry is statistically acceptable, so the regulators and industry (with callous disregard for human life) don't care about making aviation safer. At least that seems to be Oberstar's interpretation.

Jim Muncy wrote:


Oberstar is NOT the Chairman of the committee with primary jurisdiction over commercial human space flight. He chairs Transportation & Infrastructure, which oversees the FAA.

But the legislative jurisdiction for the Secretary of Transportation's authority to regulate and promote the commercial launch industry belongs to the House Comittee on Science and Technology.

That is the Commmittee that authored the CSLAA, and will consider prospective amendments to it.

Of course, that doesn't mean Oberstar won't try to derail any positive changes, as he attempted to block passage of CSLAA itself.

- Jim

P.S. But what's worse, Mr. Oberstar called yours truly a LAWYER. That's beyond the pale, IMHO.

Rand Simberg wrote:

Thanks for the clarification, Jim.

re: Your PS.

You should sue the SOB for slander. With all due respect for lawyers, of course...

Leave a comment

Note: The comment system is functional, but timing out when returning a response page. If you have submitted a comment, DON'T RESUBMIT IT IF/WHEN IT HANGS UP AND GIVES YOU A "500" PAGE. Simply click your browser "Back" button to the post page, and then refresh to see your comment.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on July 7, 2008 7:32 AM.

Pitchers' Duel was the previous entry in this blog.

The Problem With A Story Like This is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 4.1