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Blue Origin New Shepard liftoff
Blue Origin’s New Shepard prototype spaceship blasts off in January 2016. (Blue Origin Photo)

When senators asked executives from Blue Origin and other commercial space ventures what they could do to help them at a Senate hearing today, they received an unusual reply: Give more money to the regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration.

“”It may be rare for companies to be pushing for more funding for their regulators, but we really think this is a case where it could be a good investment for the country,” Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said during a Senate space subcommittee hearing.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, also known as AST, is responsible for regulating and encouraging development of private-sector launch companies such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX.

AST’s budget for the current fiscal year is just a little less than $20 million, or just a little more than 0.1 percent of the FAA’s total budget of $15.9 billion.

As more commercial operators are entering the space business, AST is having to ramp up its regulatory machinery to handle the upswing. And the commercial operators say they’re feeling the bottleneck.

Rob Meyerson, the president of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture, urged Congress to increase AST’s budget “to allow the office to operate as a responsive and effective agency.”

He also said AST should tighten its focus on the launch industry, rather that expanding its mandate.

“We believe AST’s resources are insufficient to meet its existing operations, and do not believe AST should take on new authorities now, such as on-orbit authority, space situational awareness or space traffic management,” Meyerson said. “We want to work with AST on the impending licensing traffic jam before they start taking on orbital traffic jams.”

Meyerson also complained about “conflicting expectations” on the regulatory process from the U.S. Air Force and the FAA as Blue Origin prepares to license its New Glenn orbital rocket. He said the two sets of requirements for reusable rockets were “completely different.”

“This is duplicative and onerous, and will increase costs, delays and uncertainty,” Meyerson said.

Meyerson said AST should become the single point of regulatory contact for commercial launches, regardless of the location or type of launch.

Robert Bigelow, the billionaire founder of Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, touted his company’s progress in building expandable space modules. The hotel magnate said he’s put more than $350 million into his space venture, and he aims to produce two flight-ready, 330-cubic-meter modules by 2020..

Revisiting the Outer Space Treaty

Bigelow focused his testimony on the potential for reviewing and revising the Outer Space Treaty, a 50-year-old pact that rules out assertions of sovereignty on celestial bodies beyond Earth. The treaty has become a point of debate now that commercial ventures – including Planetary Resources in Redmond, Wash. – have begun looking into space resource extraction.

In Bigelow’s view, the treaty doesn’t rule out setting up bases on the moon or other planets, even if they have a military purpose. “One base could be the size of Texas, because there is nothing in that treaty that says it couldn’t be,” he said.

Bigelow voiced concern that China could lay claim to lunar territory – a scenario he’s been talking about for years. “I don’t think it’s a joke,” he told the senators. “It’s not something to be cavalier about.”

Updating the treaty would provide an opportunity to add provisions that are more specific about establishing bases beyond Earth, and setting up non-interference zones around those bases. That would give a boost to commercial activity on the moon and other places in space, Bigelow said.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was sympathetic to the idea of revisiting the treaty. “It’s important that Congress evaluate how that treaty, enacted 50 years ago, will impact new and innovative activity within space as well as potential settlement throughout the galaxy,” he said.

No trade war with Mars

Andrew Rush, CEO of Made In Space, praised NASA’s role in supporting his company’s work on 3-D printers in space and an in-space method for manufacturing optical fiber more economically.

Rush said one way that Congress could help space entrepreneurs would be to draw up a plan for making the transition from the International Space Station, to dedicated commercial modules, to free-flying commercial space platforms.

He also said Congress should ensure that goods manufactured in space and brought down to Earth aren’t hit with import taxes or customs duties. That comment sparked a bit of political repartee involving Cruz and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

“I certainly hope we would not trigger reciprocal tariffs on Mars,” Cruz quipped.

“Or a border adjustment tax,” Nelson added.

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