Main Engine Cut Off

The Regulatory Scapegoat

Jeff Foust interviewed Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross about regulatory reforms, and this part caught my eye:

In an interview here shortly before the March 1 launch of the GOES-S weather satellite on an Atlas 5, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said he has support within his own department, and elsewhere in government, to start enacting reforms that would make the department a “one-stop shop” for most commercial space regulatory activities.

“What we’re trying to do is to make it easier for legitimate space activities to be conducted,” he said. “My slogan is, the rate of regulatory change must accelerate until it can match the rate of technological change.”

Years ago, Brian Brushwood said something that has stuck in my mind ever since: “Technology always moves faster than legislation.” It’s quite interesting to hear someone in a position of government like Ross’ hit on the same train of thought.

The goal of the reform efforts, he said, is to streamline space regulations to eliminate those that are outdated or otherwise unnecessary. That’s a particular issue in commercial remote sensing, where companies have often had to wait many months — in extreme cases, years — on government reviews of their license applications.

“Right now, if you think about it, it takes longer to get all of the regulatory approvals than it does to go from design to launch,” he argued. “We don’t think that the regulatory process should be the gating element of a launch. It should be the technology and the production of the equipment.”

I agree broadly, but the examples of regulation being the gating element are few and far between. Mostly, regulatory issues are used as a scapegoat for technical delays encountered during a project.

Moon Express received approval for a lunar landing from the US government in the summer of 2016. It’s likely it will be two years (or more) between approval and their first mission.

While I admit that companies like Moon Express do need regulatory clarity before spending too much time and money on a project in a regulatory gray area, there are not many projects held up purely because of regulatory uncertainty.