Monday, June 20, 2005

Rutan Blasts Off for Planet Regulation

Entrepreneur and engineer Burt Rutan has won high praise, and rightly so, for developing private spacecraft. When it comes to developing space policy, however, his appreciation for private solutions flames out. In his interview by Ted Balaker, recently published on Reason Public Policy Institute's website, Rutan unveiled his next mission for the spaceline industry: A journey to Planet Regulation.

In the interview, Balaker asks Rutan to describe what sort of regulatory policy he favors for space flight. Referring to proposed legislation, Rutan replies,
[W]e actually are asking for more regulation than the new legislation edicts. We do feel that the FAA needs to be accepting or proving the safety of the ship as it pertains to the passengers that get flown. Whereas their focus has been on only protecting the non-involved public who live on the ground below. We think that the industry will prosper only if there is some acceptance of [responsibility for] the safety of the ship as it pertains to the passengers.

Balaker follows up by asking why Rutan is unwilling to let consenting adults accept the inevitable risks of space flight. Rutan mouths some platitudes about freedom before concluding that just doesn't fly in his line of work:

There should be freedoms. That people know that they have a one in 10 chance of dying by doing this and they still want to do it anyway, I’m the first one to say, hey, let them. However, I don’t feel that that’s the right thing to develop and sustain [for] a private space flight industry. . . .

Now I don’t believe that it’s right to say, listen, we’ll let people take risks and we’ll go and build the kind of systems that have been used historically for manned space flight, and somehow solve the affordability problem, and that’s the only problem. We strongly feel that the biggest problem is the safety problem, not the affordability problem. If you fly dozens of people every day, you’ll get affordability with almost any kind of system. The safety problem is the biggie . . . .

Rutan seems to mean that private space flight won't succeed on the level of the airline industry until it offers cheap and safe services. That sounds plausible. Although dare-devils may fund a few experimental trips to outer space, they won't fill anything near the number of seats required to support a Southwest Spacelines.

But does Rutan really think that new FAA regulations will best ensure the safety of space flight? Probably not, given that elsewhere in the interview he makes many disparaging comments about the ignorance and slow speed of the FAA bureaucracy. Rutan surely realizes that if space passengers demand safety, spaceline companies will strive to provide it. FAA regulations would only prove intrusive and unnecessary.

So why on (and off) earth does Rutan want new FAA regulations mandating space passenger safety? Maybe he thinks it will help him to win a lock on the spaceline market. At several points in the interview, he stresses the unique safety technologies developed by his company, Scaled Composites. "The real thing that we did here is to develop three new breakthroughs, and each one of them is going to have enormous effects on safety," he says, later adding, "We developed three new breakthrough technologies which will allow us immediately to launch a commercial spaceline industry in which people can fly at the same safety level of the early airlines."

Rutan thus thinks that his company has an edge when it comes to offering passengers safe access to outer space. Good for him! But he should not use FAA regulations to ground would-be competitors, forcing them to overcome both gravity and red-tape.

In fairness to Rutan, perhaps he simply wants the FAA to assure nervous customers that they can trust private passenger spacecraft. FAA safety certifications probably would have that effect. But why should taxpayers fund that advertising add-on? Surely a fellow like Rutan, daring and clever enough to imagine private space travel, should realize that private parties can also certify the safety of consumer goods and services. Unless he spends all his time looking skyward, for instance, he might have noticed Underwriters Laboratories.

Regardless of Rutan's reasons for wanting more FAA regulation of the space flight industry, his proposal just doesn't fly. All of us itching to explore the high frontier want Rutan and his counterparts at other companies to keep innovating, keep flying, and keep competing with each other. Will it help that noble effort to give FAA bureaucrats more control? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to answer that question.

(Crossposted at Technology Liberation Front.)


Anonymous said...

I think his goal is primarily protecting the industry, not the passengers themselves.

While it is in the long term self interest of the companies involved that spacecraft be as safe as possible, it would only take one overanxious attempt to do to commercial space travel what the Hindenburg did to commercial airship travel.

Also, I can't think of any rational reason why a riskier form of transportation should be under less regulation than a safer one.

Caliban said...

Also, I can't think of any rational reason why a riskier form of transportation should be under less regulation than a safer one.

It's only rational if you believe that regulation causes safety.

Air travel is one of the safest forms of transportation on the planet -- if we extend your argument, we'd have to regulate nearly every form of travel to the same extent as air travel, since they're "riskier."

I'm disappointed in Rutan.

Anonymous said...

Rutan's desire for FAA regulation makes sense just about any way you look at it (from his perspective).

1. It would lock-in his current technology advantage.
2. It would protect his fledgling industry.
3. It would give his product official credibility
4. It would engage outside experts to help develop improved safety technology and systems.
5. It would open the doors to integration with the air traffic control system, communication systems, security requirements, and the rest of the commercial avaition industry.
6. It would provide some degree of legal cover against lawsuits - especially if a crash happened as a result of an incomplete or incorrect FAA requirement.

Rutan is doing a good job protecting the interests of his investors.

As for your assertion that "...if space passangers demand safety, spaceline companies will strive to provide it. FAA regulations would prove intrusive and unessecary." This sounds like libertarian Kool-Aid talking. To agree with this, you'd have to support the absolute dergulation of everything: If a pharmacist consistently mistakenly taints his prescriptions and kills his patients, eventually market forces will drive him out of business, making FDA regulations intrusive and unnecessary. Private sector regulatory groups, such as UL, are only practicle in special circumstances and in many cases only have recourse through govornment intervention. Also, how in the world would you transition from here to there? How would you propose privatizing the NRC, for example?


Tom W. Bell said...


I don't dispute that Rutan has reasons (if not conclusive ones) to support FAA regulation of passenger safety. I dispute that the rest of us should find those reasons convincing. It may help him, but it won't help the public in general.

You worry that I've been drinking "libertarian Kool-Aid". Have *you* been drinking NASA Tang? Nobody calls for "absolute deregulation of everything"; that's a canard. Private parties would at all events continue to rely on trademark law, contract law, tort law, etc.

The question is whether private parties can do better at protecting consumer safety using those sorts of tools than government agents can using particularized administrative mechanisms. Evidence from the off-label use of FDA-approved pharmaceuticals, to cite one example, supports what theory would suggest: centralized state regulatory approaches cost more lives, on net, than decentralized private ones. It is a question of incentives and institutional structures, and the answers routinely point out that government agents have insufficient reasons and means to protect consumer safety efficiently.

As my reference to the FDA indicates, and as you rightly ken, the arguments against having the FAA regulate space passenger safety also militate to some extent against government consumer safety regulations in general. Space travel does offer a special case, however, in that it does not *yet* suffer the burdens of safety regulation. I'm thus not going to take up your invitation to discuss other questions of consumer safety. For now, it suffices to observe that the burden of proof must lie on those who would expand the FAA's regulatory power in this particular case. We cannot rely on Rutan's self-interested plea to resolve the question, and we have *no* evidence that the industry suffers a safety problem. At the least, we can sit back and see how the market does.