Politics & Policy

Space Pioneer

Reagan's real space innovation was in the commercial launch industry.

A little over a week from now, a small manned rocket-powered craft will pierce the top of the atmosphere in the southern California desert, going into space with a newly minted license from the Federal Aviation Administration. That license is a result of policy decisions that stretch back over two decades to President Reagan’s first term of office.

When associating Reagan’s presidency with space, many will recall his memorable address comforting the nation on the evening of the Challenger loss, or his initiation of the space-station program, or even his Strategic Defense Initiative, which many credit with being the final nudge that pushed the Soviet Union over the cliff–and without, to paraphrase Lady Thatcher, shooting down a single missile.

As history continues to play out off the planet, the late president will indeed be remembered as a visionary pioneer in space–but not for any decisions he made with respect to new NASA programs. Rather, it will be for his much-less-publicized but more far-ranging space-policy decisions–those that affected the neglected private sector.

The early 1980s were the formative years of the nascent commercial launch industry. It’s difficult to remember now, but everything launched into space up until that time, including commercial communications satellites, had been lifted on a government launch vehicle, by either NASA or the Air Force.

A few people saw the potential demand for private launch, and established companies to provide such services, but they ran into huge institutional roadblocks. It wasn’t obvious how to go about performing a legal private launch, and they had to coordinate with a myriad of government entities–launch ranges, the FCC for frequency permits, the FAA for air clearances, the EPA for environmental issues, the State Department for international-treaty obligations, etc. This created a great deal of regulatory uncertainty, which in turn made it difficult to raise funds.

Some of these companies approached the administration with a request for regulatory relief, which was proposed as setting up a “one-stop shop” that they could deal with for permission to launch. This agency would in turn coordinate all the others.

When this issue was raised to the president, it piqued his interest. Having lived through the early history of the space program, during which only government agencies went into space, he had never considered the possibility of private companies doing so. But it resonated strongly with his basic philosophy of freedom and individualism, so he decided to make it happen. He held a cabinet meeting at which the main issue under discussion was not whether or not to do it, but how and where, with the two candidates being the Department of Commerce, under Malcolm Baldrige, and the Department of Transportation, under Elizabeth (now Senator) Dole. In accordance with his natural predilections, the decision was made on the basis of which department would be the most nurturing of the new industry and provide the fewest hindrances.

Apparently Secretary Dole was the most persuasive in that regard, because in 1983 the president signed an executive order establishing an Office of Commercial Space Transportation in the Department of Transportation, which would issue launch licenses. In 1984, Congress codified this into law in the Commercial Space Launch Act, and Reagan was pleased to sign it.

This was a key development in the fledgling industry, but it still had the burden of having to compete with government-subsidized launch systems, particularly the shuttle. Part of the cost justification for the shuttle was that it would attain its high flight rate (necessary to achieve the advertised low costs) by flying all of the nation’s payloads, including commercial payloads. Hughes (now Boeing Satellite Systems) had even designed a communications satellite specifically for launch in the shuttle.

While the 1986 Challenger loss was a tragedy for the nation, and for those who had invested their dreams in a government space program, it turned out to be a boon for the commercial launch industry. Eight months after it occurred, recognizing that the policy had been flawed from the beginning, the Reagan administration issued another executive order ending the use of the shuttle for commercial payloads, unless they could only be launched thereby.

The pieces were finally in place for a commercial launch industry: The administration had an established regulatory process in place by which private launches could occur, and the market had opened up with the end of the subsidized shuttle rides. As a result, today we have a number of commercial launchers of various sizes and prices, carrying a variety of communications, remote sensing, and other satellites. Beyond that, we are now on the verge of an era of commercial manned spaceflight, in which no one need apply to space bureaucrats for a ride–they’ll soon be able to simply buy a ticket.

That will be a future in which we finally have a space program that exemplifies the traditional American values of free enterprise and open frontiers to all–and not a Cold War program of centralized government bureaucracy. Moreover, it will be a future that had its roots in decisions made by a far-seeing cowboy in the White House two decades ago.

Ad astra, Mr. President.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism, and Internet security. He writes about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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