Suppose every time a civilian or pure research plane lifted off there was an obscure law, originally passed with good intentions, that had to be regularly reauthed by Congress or no more flights. And let's just say that Congress became hyper-polarized, a do nothing body, where even the simplest, once uncontroversial act morphed into a potential hot potato in a mid term election year. Air traffic would grind to a halt.
Well, that's a fair analogy for a bureaucratic hurdle currently faced by NASA, along with contractors and customers, all waiting on a critical reauthorization before a score of rockets can be duly licensed and cleared for launch in 2014. Follow me below, deep into the cosmic weeds, and we'll review just how easy this should be to fix.
The concern is, or rather was during the early days of the commercial launch industry, that a big rocket veering off course could stray for miles in just a few seconds before streaking into a residential or commercial development like something out of a bad sci-fi movie. The example used back in the day was what happens if a Shuttle-sized vehicle goes out of control and hits Disney World, killing loads of innocent people and doing zillions of dollars worth of damage? It's an incredibly unlikely disaster, perhaps one in a billion, but we all witnessed the tragic and devastating power of a civilian aircraft impact on Sept. 11, 2001. During the height of the space-race, rockets carried way more explosive fuel, were far less reliable, and flew way faster than any airliner today.
For decades, that liability risk was taken on by the federal government. Fortunately, such a cataclysm never happened. Thanks to enormous advances in reliability, the implementation of standard self destruct mechanisms, and the use of smaller launch vehicles, it probably never will. But just in case, someone still has to stand good for it. Nowadays, it makes sense that that someone should start with the aerospace contractors who made the hypothetically defective rocket, and end with NASA and related government agencies. Thus was born the Space Launch Act of 1984, followed by the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 1988 .
The Act mandates that regulators determine what's deemed the Maximum Probable Loss of a launch failure and write an insurance policy for the company to purchase. The exact insured amount required varies by the size and type of rocket and where it's launched from, but it's not uncommon to be the better part of half a billion dollars. In the extremely unlikely event that, someday, somehow, damage to third parties from falling debris exceeded even that exorbitant figure, the act auth'd the Department of Transportation to seek additional funds to pay those claims, through normal or special appropriation requests. All well and good: except this deal has expired. It has to be reauth'd by Congress and signed by the President before a bevy of pending launch licenses can be granted in 2014.
Here's the rub: the requirement for insurance and additional authority to request funding in the event of a catastrophe beyond the calculated max probable loss is applied somewhat arbitrarily. Most Department of Defense launches aren’t subject to the same redtape; DoD has its own indemnification authority, they get a special pass even though it could be the same launch vehicles made by the same aerospace firms doing the heavy lifting. In layperson's terms, NSA spy sats are go for liftoff. But if Google wants to put up a bird, or a university designed experiment is slated for orbit, or if newer, nimble companies want to bid on supplying the ISS using their much lower cost platforms, guess what? That's considered a commercial launch. Which means they're stuck waiting for Congress to get this ledge to the WH.
The good news is the Senate has already passed a three-year re-auth clearing the way. Sources close to the administration tell me the President would sign it as soon as it reaches his desk. Alas, for whatever reason, the House only passed a one-year re-auth. But I'm told there's widespread bipartisan willingness to go along with the longer, Senate version and for good reasons. We won't have to worry about navigating this particular legislative maze again until 2017. If contractors are willing to assume the lion's share of liability previously borne by taxpayers, it makes sense to lock in the longest term deal we can get them to go along with. And lastly, at the risk of sounding cynical, the more often something has to be auth'd by Congress, the more chances for it to blow up and the greater the chances some scheming lobbyist figures out a clever way to exploit that recurring annual ordeal to advance their sole client's interests at the expense of taxpayers and other missions.1
This is such a no brainer that senior lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who can barely agree on the time of day, want it done. Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD), hands down one of the sharpest members on the House Science Committee, currently serving as the key ranking dem on the Subcommittee on Space, explained, "It is my hope that a bipartisan extension will encourage the Science Committee to do its due diligence and hold oversight hearings with experts from both the FAA and industry." Edwards added, "Too often, we extend these programs while not following through on our responsibility to conduct oversight and offer responsible reforms. We must put this to bed for good and give our industry the stability they need to move forward on a level playing field with our international partners.”
Several influential Republicans told me they are in favor of getting a chance to vote a three-year extension thru. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), pointed out "it is important for us to provide certainty and stability to the commercial space industry by authorizing indemnification longer than just one year."
None of this is terribly controversial, there's no standard left-right political risk here. But it got tabled in the rush leading up to the holiday break and if it stays on the back-burner, that will cost real money and cause real problems, and at the worst time possible. After years of budget cuts and sequesters, NASA is underfunded just like most any other department these days, constantly being forced to do more with less. But they've still managed to do a lot, in no small part because we as taxpayers have spent a ton of good money to build and maintain the world's premier space exploration infrastructure essential for NASA and related entities to do what they do.
To have any of that expensive capacity lay fallow, waiting on a minor piece of ledge everyone seems to agree should go forward, isn't just a threat to continued progress, or a dreadful waste of public-science resources, it is money right out of our collective pockets. If dragged out, it could spiral into a series of totally unnecessary delays and the cost increases that always come along for the ride. At a time when budget hawks, supported by the occasional anti-science lunatic and associated right-wing media ideologues we all know too well, are always foaming at the mouth looking for anything that can be spun into the same-old, dreary Big Expensive Gubmint-run-amok narrative they seem to crave. In short, this could end up could leaving NASA and specific programs within the agency looking like the scapegoat for "government waste," when the waste is actually being directly caused by inaction in the House of Representatives.
The solution is surprisingly simple, even in a town like DC where damn near everything else is convoluted beyond all belief. The solution is also surprisingly satisfying, especially in an era where large companies in other industries have been more than happy to offload their all too predictable screw-ups and zillion dollar losses onto the public without a second thought. For chrisake, if any corporation is fine with standing up and spending their own money insuring our private homes and businesses, thus relieving taxpayers of that burden and take responsibility for their actions and products to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, all in return for simply being assured our government will continue to do what it has always done in the unlikely event of a national disaster, I say we freaking let them!
All that's needed for that win-win scenario to come true is for the House to get this out of committee, schedule a vote passing the routine three-year extension, send that uncontroversial measure up to the WH, and viola. Problem solved, go for launch, final frontier here we come. Not a bad way for space junkies and science aficionado's to start a new year!