Rutan Blasts Off for Planet Regulation

by on June 20, 2005 · 70 comments

Entrepreneur and engineer Burt Rutan has won high praise, and rightly so, for developing private spacecraft. When it comes to developing space policy, however, his appreciation for private solutions flames out. In his interview by Ted Balaker, recently published on Reason Public Policy Institute’s website, Rutan unveiled his next mission for the spaceline industry: A journey to Planet Regulation.

In the interview, Balaker asks Rutan to describe what sort of regulatory policy he favors for space flight. Referring to proposed legislation, Rutan replies,

[W]e actually are asking for more regulation than the new legislation edicts. We do feel that the FAA needs to be accepting or proving the safety of the ship as it pertains to the passengers that get flown. Whereas their focus has been on only protecting the non-involved public who live on the ground below. We think that the industry will prosper only if there is some acceptance of [responsibility for] the safety of the ship as it pertains to the passengers.

Balaker follows up by asking why Rutan is unwilling to let consenting adults accept the inevitable risks of space flight. Rutan mouths some platitudes about freedom before concluding that just doesn’t fly in his line of work:

There should be freedoms. That people know that they have a one in 10 chance of dying by doing this and they still want to do it anyway, I’m the first one to say, hey, let them. However, I don’t feel that that’s the right thing to develop and sustain [for] a private space flight industry. . . .

Now I don’t believe that it’s right to say, listen, we’ll let people take risks and we’ll go and build the kind of systems that have been used historically for manned space flight, and somehow solve the affordability problem, and that’s the only problem. We strongly feel that the biggest problem is the safety problem, not the affordability problem. If you fly dozens of people every day, you’ll get affordability with almost any kind of system. The safety problem is the biggie . . . .

Rutan seems to mean that private space flight won’t succeed on the level of the airline industry until it offers cheap and safe services. That sounds plausible. Although dare-devils may fund a few experimental trips to outer space, they won’t fill anything near the number of seats required to support a Southwest Spacelines.

But does Rutan really think that new FAA regulations will best ensure the safety of space flight? Probably not, given that elsewhere in the interview he makes many disparaging comments about the ignorance and slow speed of the FAA bureaucracy. Rutan surely realizes that if space passengers demand safety, spaceline companies will strive to provide it. FAA regulations would only prove intrusive and unnecessary.

So why on (and off) earth does Rutan want new FAA regulations mandating space passenger safety? Maybe he thinks it will help him to win a lock on the spaceline market. At several points in the interview, he stresses the unique safety technologies developed by his company, Scaled Composites. “The real thing that we did here is to develop three new breakthroughs, and each one of them is going to have enormous effects on safety,” he says, later adding, “We developed three new breakthrough technologies which will allow us immediately to launch a commercial spaceline industry in which people can fly at the same safety level of the early airlines.”

Rutan thus thinks that his company has an edge when it comes to offering passengers safe access to outer space. Good for him! But he should not use FAA regulations to ground would-be competitors, forcing them to overcome both gravity and red-tape.

In fairness to Rutan, perhaps he simply wants the FAA to assure nervous customers that they can trust private passenger spacecraft. FAA safety certifications probably would have that effect. But why should taxpayers fund that advertising add-on? Surely a fellow like Rutan, daring and clever enough to imagine private space travel, should realize that private parties can also certify the safety of consumer goods and services. Unless he spends all his time looking skyward, for instance, he might have noticed Underwriters Laboratories.

Regardless of Rutan’s reasons for wanting more FAA regulation of the space flight industry, his proposal just doesn’t fly. All of us itching to explore the high frontier want Rutan and his counterparts at other companies to keep innovating, keep flying, and keep competing with each other. Will it help that noble effort to give FAA bureaucrats more control? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to answer that question.

(Crossposted at Agoraphilia.)

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