I wonder what the vetting process is for items that reach FAA Administrator Steve Dickson’s desk. There’s a lot going on at the agency these days and he’s just one guy. Something I’m sure he’s noticed, however, is how many of his valuable seconds and minutes are expended on the issues of the day that involve space operations.
The commercial space industry has exploded in the last five years (pun intended and germane to the argument that follows) and when activity increases in anything, problems tend to rear their ugly heads. I have no way of knowing, but Dickson will likely get briefed on a new Office of Inspector General review of potential conflicts between spacecraft and aircraft, an investigation into the publicity ride featuring Virgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson that went off course and then there’s Elon Musk. Dickson probably sets aside time every day to get briefed on what arrogant and irritatingly sensible buttons Musk is pushing.
That doesn’t leave much time for the mundane aviation topics he also has to keep an eye on, like yahoos on airliners punching flight attendants because they don’t want to wear masks, brand-new airliners that don’t get built right, and a Wild West movement to fill the skies with tiny electric multi-rotor aircraft that are somehow supposed to make urban transport safer and more convenient. Oh, and let’s not forget that a cellphone carrier has FCC approval to test a new 5G system that could jam GPS signals, which are fundamental to the FAA’s air traffic management system. This is not an exhaustive list but you get the idea.
The FAA was born of a need to provide regulatory foundation to the society-changing aviation industry. We all know the clichés but it’s hard to argue with the overall track record of the agency, despite its recent issues. Aviation is the safest way to travel, period, and when you consider what’s involved that’s pretty remarkable.
I think it’s time the commercial space industry got its own regulatory body. Please be civil in the comments. Creating a new government agency won’t be a popular notion among many of you but hear me out. Commercial space operations will fundamentally change the way we all live. I live in one of the obscure and isolated areas that qualify for Elon Musk’s (that guy again) Starlink satellite Internet service’s beta trial. I can limp along with the phone company’s pathetic offering for now because it’s somewhat cheaper than Musk’s system but neighbors who don’t have even the meager access that we have are signing up in droves and getting fiber speeds on their mountaintops.
Musk’s ground floor operation will likely be a footnote in the evolution of space-based services and I can’t begin to imagine how that’s going to affect me and my family. What I do know is I would like some oversight whose vigor matches the Gold Rush pace of development. This is not an industry that should be run off the corner of the FAA administrator’s desk.
It’s not just regulatory issues that need the full attention of a standalone space bureaucracy. That agency has to have the same fundamental mandate at the FAA’s, which is to foster and promote the industry. There are also some practical reasons to hive off the space business to a new agency. If you read the FAA press releases about space stuff, it’s always in the context of finding room for space operations without disrupting aviation. Maybe there needs to be a little more give and take in that regard.
And when it comes to funding, it seems like space governance might get a better shake as its own entity than as a department of an agency that is fundamentally at odds with its increasingly frequent intrusions in its sandbox.
The final frontier is becoming an inextricable part of every human being’s life. Starlink will bring high-speed Internet to every square inch of the earth (and likely to our seven acres if the phone company doesn’t get off its duff) and this is Kitty Hawk times in the aviation context.
Industry needs robust and enforceable regulation to thrive in a free society and the space industry deserves nothing less than its own bureaucracy to hate.
For heaven’s sake, let’s be careful with the name. No clever acronyms, no double entendres or drawing on our inner nerds. How about the U.S. Space Administration or USSA.