By Peter GaluszkaVirgin galactic

Does bad news come in twos or threes?

First, on Oct. 28, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket bound to supply the International Space Station exploded seconds into its take off at Wallops Island on the Virginia Eastern Shore.

Three days later, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo designed for space tourism broke in two during a test flight over the Mojave Desert in California. One pilot was killed and the second was seriously injured when he parachuted to safety.

Both incidents involve private companies pushing ahead to commercialize space which used to be the province of the federal government, NASA and the military. The Orbital incident brought the usual cries that the government should continue its hands off policies about regulating the private space industry. The Virgin Galactic accident changes that equation.

For some background, here’s

“Thus far, the private space industry has resisted oversight from federal regulators, but that could change in the wake of the accident.

“I suspect there will be pressure for tighter regulations,” (John)  Logsdon (of George Washington University) said.

“In 2012, Congress passed a bill that extended the “learning period” for the commercial spaceflight industry. The measure was championed by Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, whose district covers the Mojave spaceport.

“The provision essentially prohibited the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, dubbed AST, from issuing regulations designed only for the protection of passengers until October 2015. The idea behind this hands-off approach was to allow the spaceflight industry to gain real-world data from their first licensed commercial launches; the FAA would, in turn, use this information to eventually craft regulations.

“In the wake of the accident, Virgin Galactic and the National Transportation Safety Board — the federal agency leading the investigation — have warned against speculation until the ongoing investigation is complete. But critics have made strong claims about risks the company took.

“Tom Bower, a biographer of Branson, told BBC Radio 4 that the accident was “predictable and inevitable.” Joel Glenn Brenner, a former Washington Post reporter who has been following Virgin Galactic’s progress, made similar charges shortly after the accident in an appearance on CNN, adding: “I don’t see them at least being able to carry anybody into space in the next 10 years.

“Andrea Gini, of the Netherlands-based International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, criticized Virgin Galactic for a lack of transparency about its safety procedures.

“We don’t know how Scaled Composites approached this particular test,” Gini told in an email. “Virgin Galactic has always refused to participate to the public discussion inside the space safety community, and has never sought the support of independent reviewers.”

“Gini said there are elements of Virgin Galactic’s flight design that experts consider hazardous. The decision to fly passengers and even crew without pressurized space suits, for example, could expose them to risk of decompression, he said.

“Space is, and will always be, a risky industry,” Gini said. “But it is not a new one. I believe that commercial operators should approach it with transparency and humility, or their business, and not just their vehicles, will be doomed to failure.””

That’s sobering. In the Wallops Island case, investigators are loo9king at where decades-old, modified, Russian-made rocket engines that the Russians deemed too dangerous to use were a cause.

There are questions that need answering.

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7 responses to “Why Private Space Firms Need Oversight”

  1. Peter wisely avoids the knee-jerk response of calling for tighter safety regulations, although the tone of his post suggests that he thinks none too well of those who would resist such regulations.

    If multi-zillion dollar rockets blow up in mid-air, that shouldn’t be the business of the federal government. Space-flight companies purchase insurance or spread their investment risk in other ways. Let the players in the industry and the insurers decide amongst themselves the optimal tradeoff between safety, risk and economic return.

    Yeah, every once in a while a test pilot will die in a tragic accident — just like NASA astronauts did. Those guys knew the risks and they willingly took them. It would be disastrous to the private space program to encumber it with the same kind of regulations that has made NASA manned space flights to unaffordable.

    1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      Let me see if I follow this:

      – If I load spacecraft up with cargo that it is legal to transport.
      – Then if those spacecraft explode and get trash all over the place.
      – This is okay as long as I carry the right insurance to cover me and as long as I charge my customers enough to keep my business in the black.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Kinda absurd response.

    If an spacecraft loaded with extremely explosive and toxic fuels up in the air OF COURSE IT IS THE CONCERN OF GOVERNMENT.


  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Jim doesn’t seem to understand that the FAA has jurisdiction over publicly-held airspace and can regulate who goes into it and what kind of explosives can be allowed.

    He also doesn’t seem to understand that Virginia will get hit for some of the damage bill at the Wallops Island “space port.”

  4. I think we’re messed up here … Wallops Island IS a NASA – as in a U.S. Government facility – and the folks who launched the missile were contractors to the U.S. Govt – which I’m sure has LOTs of regulations… already.

    but wait – we have this conundrum now involved in our elections – that goes something like this:

    1. – the govt is corrupt and incompetent and cannot be trusted to do good work … aka – ObamaCare, Ebola, the IRS, ISIS, Benghazi, etc, etc…

    2. – regulation kills jobs.. unregulation creates jobs…

    3. – the west coast space deal is mostly private and I agree with Jim Bacon – let it alone…

    just imagine what would have happened to the Wright brothers if the govt had gotten involved… and started worrying about safety and stuff…


    on the other hand – how many “free market” companies are falling all over themselves to show the govt the proper way to deal with ebola?

    I think the critics forget that the “govt” is just ordinary people.. and people … they screw up .. even when they represent the “govt’.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    As far as I know the only places one can launch a large rocket to space are at federal facilities like Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg AFB in Calf. or Wallops. Musk and SpaceX use a place in Texas and he wants to build a private spaceport near the Mexican border. As far as the Branson deal that was lifted by other aircraft and dropped. In any event, there has to be regulation of some sort left one of thee gizmoes crash into a school and kill a lot of kids.

    As far as saying let the insurance companies handle it, that’s a laugh.
    They’ll keep[ in court for years.

    1. Peter – there are LOTS of places that are remote that could easily support space launches…

      but in terms of stuff falling out of the sky…a lot of what flies today is private and does have insurance … and I guess I’d have to admit that – that is a basis for regulation…which is preferable to an outright ban but I don’t think you want the govt involved in trying to regulate cutting-edge technology – you want them to stay out of the way… and let people innovate.. but I agree – where they do it or not is a proper area for the govt …

      but as time goes by – we are going to see more and more companies launching rockets… not just the govt.

      and we want it to happen… we don’t want to restrict it.

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