Science

Trump Wants to Turn Space Into a Free-Market Paradise

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“New Space” requires new rules. 

That’s the view of the National Space Council, which held its second gathering Wednesday to address what the Trump administration says are outdated, overly burdensome regulations that were written for an earlier era when the U.S. government was the prime actor off-planet and rocket launches were both rare and prohibitively expensive.

As billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk line up to cash in on the final frontier, the administration is keen to streamline U.S. rules around how the government licenses space launches, giving such operators as Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC and Branson’s Virgin Galactic, along with United Launch Alliance, Sierra Nevada Corp. and others, far more leeway in how they operate businesses that rely on frequent launches.

Blue Origin’s rocket.

“Our legal, regulatory and organizational frameworks have not caught up and are putting the brakes on our current progress,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an advocacy group for commercial space firms and spaceports, told the Space Council.

Read More: Follow the Trump Administration’s Every Move

America’s history of space racing dates to the Cold War, when fear of Soviet orbital domination spurred U.S. President John Kennedy to propose a lunar landing before 1970 and persuaded Congress to dramatically boost funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to more than 4 percent of the U.S. budget. Currently, the country spends about $19 billion annually for NASA, or about 0.5 percent of the total federal budget. From a military standpoint, the modern space race has begun to echo the original one as well, with the U.S. concerned about Chinese and Russian advances in satellite technology and missiles.

But Wednesday’s meeting was about the more profitable aspects of space. Among the Trump administration’s first efforts will be an overhaul of the bureaucratic processes to license a launch, which is handled by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Under the proposal, which is expected to be completed by March 2019, a launch and re-entry, regardless of vehicle type, will require only one license from the Department of Transportation.

Currently, such licenses are too restrictive and apply only to a single site or specified period, Vice President Mike Pence said at the meeting held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe

“The government’s figured out how to honor drivers’ licenses across state lines,” Pence said. “There’s no reason we can’t do the same for rockets.” Pence leads the council, which Trump revived last summer to coordinate U.S. space policy.

As part of the government’s new posture on further commercializing space, the Commerce Department will devise a new Under Secretary of Space Commerce role and move the Office of Space Commerce from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the department itself. “We need an adaptive and relatively permissive regulatory system,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said at the meeting, which was also attended by several cabinet secretaries and the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. 

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster rockets return to Earth.

Source: twitter.com/SpaceX

The Space Council also recommended that the government review regulations around export licenses that affect commercial space activity. Such rules have prevented U.S. and Chinese companies from working jointly on some space projects, for example.

On Tuesday, the White House announced a new, 29-member “User Advisory Group” to advise the Space Council on how to foster greater cooperation among U.S. space players. Participants include Boeing Co. Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenberg; SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell; Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.; former Republican U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and five former NASA astronauts.

“The right set of policies and partnerships can ensure optimal growth in the U.S. aerospace industry,” said Phil Larson, a former science adviser in the Obama administration. “It’s encouraging to see these discussions at the forefront.”

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