Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Regulating Private Spaceflight

Doug Barnes writes:

There is a clear basis for regulation of objects that, with great force, fling themselves into the sky and have an opportunity to subsequently land on random people and property. Even from a purely selfish point of view, it’s not going to be good for the development of a commercial spaceflight industry if rocket parts periodically rain down on inhabited areas. A responsible industry participant would take great care to make sure this didn’t happen, but wouldn’t be able to restrain the less responsible participants, who would ruin it for everyone. There is also a realistic concern that high-speed flying debris could do more damage than the unlucky or improvident participant could pay for.

So what’s wrong with general torts, negligence, and what-have you for this? Its not like a reasonable person can’t foresee that rockets sometimes malfunction. Why do we need new regulations?

Doug also asks:

Sandy, and the analyst he pointed me to, think that these regulations are harbingers of more restrictive regulations in the future. Of course they are — as we figure out how to do this thing, it would be insane not to regulate it as well and as thoroughly as we regulate commercial aviation. Explain to me again why there isn’t a burgeoning third-world industry in manufacturing dodgy (or at least more lightly regulated) aircraft?

I actually would like to turn the question around. Given that there isn’t a burgeoning third-world industry in manufacturing aircraft, why should we fear that there would be one in rocketry?

4 comments on "Regulating Private Spaceflight"

  • Adam asks two questions, which are answered, although not as plainly as I might have hoped, in my essay:
    1) There are two reasons why you don’t want to rely on tort law.
    a) The most obvious reason is that if a company sinks all of its capital into building a prototype rocket, which then lands in an inhabited area and kills a large quantity of cardiac surgeons, the company will be entirely worthless and will not be able to compensate the widows and children of the cardiac surgeons.
    b) It would be very bad for the industry if there were even a substantial fraction of participants who were prone to building rockets so badly that they had an alarming tendency to land in inhabited areas and kill cardiac surgeons. This might sort itself out in the (very long) term, but would have the short-term effect of making everyone extremely wary of the industry.
    2) I’m not “afraid” that people the private spaceflight industry will move to Panama, I’m pointing out that it would be extremely unwise. That is, it would send the wrong signals to investors and potential passengers, and it would be bad for the industry. Also, not mentioned, if Panama harbored some sort of wild west rocket industry that was prone to, e.g., dropping rockets on inhabited areas populated by cardiac surgeons, this would not be a sustainable development model for Panama.

  • More on Regulating Private Spaceflight

    Adam Shostack asked two questions on his blog in quick response to my previous post about private spaceflight. So what’s wrong with general torts, negligence, and what-have you for this? Its not like a reasonable person can’t foresee that rockets…

  • adam says:

    Stepping away from my area of expertise, aren’t there provisions in most lawbooks that say something like “If a company that has failed to make reasonable provisions for forseeable problems, then the managers who made those decisions can be held personally liable?” Which may not compensate the widows and orphans, but would deter the management from failing to purchase insurance. If management is motivated to buy the right insurance, etc, why do we need special regulation?

  • Part of the existing framework that the Act is amending (it’s very confusing, and I’m still working my way through it — I’m in the middle of finals, etc.) is a requirement for insurance of $500M (49 U.S.C. 70112), as well as an indemnification by the government for third parties up to $1.5bn in 1989 dollars in excess of that (49 U.S.C. 70112).
    While it’s unsual for the government to be chipping in, minimum insurance or financial responsibility requirements are part of a wide range of regulations (e.g. regulations on money transfering businesses, licensing of general contractors, etc.). And, of course, most states require you to have minimum insurance before you get behind the wheel of a car, so really this should be that shocking.
    Maybe rocket promoters would get that kind of insurance without further prompting, maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe the amount is excessive, maybe it isn’t– since starting this, I’ve read some of Gary Hudson’s testimony on the damage to third parties from space flight to date (basically nothing), but there has been so little private development & deployment at this point that we really don’t have much of a data set to work from.
    Again, the point of regulations like these — which might be what a sensible, prudent operator would chose to do voluntarily — is to screen out the folks who are not sensible and not prudent.

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