While most of us think of the October 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik as beginning of the space age, this week is actually marks the 70th anniversary of the spaceflight. The first manmade object to pass the Karman line -- the 100km boundary that separates spacecraft from aircraft -- was the sub-orbital flight of an A4 rocket from Germany's Baltic coast on October 3, 1942. That event also signaled the beginning of decades of government domination of spaceflight.
Like many of his amateur rocket-building contemporaries, the genius designer of the A4, Werner Von Braun, dreamed of sending mankind to the moon and planets. Unlike American Robert Goddard, Von Braun chose to make a deal with the devil, in the guise of Adolf Hitler, to fund his rocket research. It was an arrangement that resulted in rapid technological triumph, human misery, and an unfortunate detour in our journey to the stars.
Though it was remarkably successful, the V2 (a weaponized version of the A4) thankfully came too late to save its odious Nazi benefactors. Nonetheless, the spectacle of thousands dead, injured and homeless in London and Antwerp left space rocketry within the tight grasp of military and government agents throughout the Cold War. Von Braun's next patron, the United States, invested billions of dollars into space technology in order to count coup on the Soviets; but on in our rush to the moon, we skipped right over developing practical and routine access to space.
As the Cold War eased, the dreamers began again to think about building rockets for civilians. Quixotic California firms like Starstruck (backed by Apple Computer 's first CEO, Michael Scott) and Mojave based Rotary Rockets struggled for private funding amidst an adversarial legal and regulatory environment. During this time, the government was the biggest nemesis of rocketry visionaries.
While a few enlightened legislators, like California's Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) pushed through legislation supporting private access to space, administrators at NASA and its cadre of huge, military-industrial-complex vendors supported over-engineered, over-budget projects like the shuttle. Despite the flailings and spectacular failings of that venture, the space orthodoxy dismissed entrepreneurial space efforts as mere lunacy. As the average age of engineers at NASA and its contractors moved from 25 to 55 the agency became a white-collar jobs program, dominated by folks most interested in protecting their looming retirements. They used the law and the space budget as a contrivance to safeguard the status quo and frustrate commercial spacecraft development.
Luckily, America's budgetary woes have come to the rescue of the community of entrepreneurial rocket builders commonly referred to as "New Space" firms. In 2004, a California effort, funded by Microsoft's Paul Allen, made two sub-orbital, manned spaceflights. Enlightened by that success and the recommendations of a seminal report commissioned by the Bush administration, the Obama White House has pushed privatization as a solution to NASA's budget limitations. The space orthodoxy pushed back, still mocking New Space firms despite the fact that their team could no long put a NASA vehicle into orbit.
However, when Hawthorne based SpaceX docked its Dragon capsule at the International Space Station this May the laughing stopped. Market driven space travel has arrived. New Space firms and the incumbents that adopt their model will rapidly displace inefficient state-run space launch operations around the world.
With its technical prowess no longer in doubt, what the industry needs now is to be left alone to percolate and develop market opportunities free from intrusive regulation and harassing litigation. California has taken a bold step in that direction with Governor Brown's recent signing of AB 2243. This bi-partisan bill, sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Steve Knight, protects the private space tourism industry from lawsuits by properly informed spaceflight participants. Upon signing, the governor remarked that, "This legislation will ensure that California continues to be a place that looks forward -- and not back." Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) president, Michael Lopez-Alegria notes that the bill serves as a, "Stepping-stone to job growth in California." Exactly.
As CSF Chairman and Mojave Space Port CEO, Stuart Witt has said, "This industry has an incredible potential to create cutting-edge technology, provide safe and routine access to space from U.S. soil, and bring high-tech jobs to the American people." Leaving a new industry open to attack by packs of trail lawyers is one of the surest ways to chase its firms and jobs offshore. This is why we must now pursue federal liability protection for both operators and manufacturers of orbital and sub-orbital spacecraft as well as consider an international agreement similar to the 1929 Warsaw Convention that still protects commercial airlines with a defined liability cap. As has often been the case, California has pointed the way to the future, let us follow.
Greg Autry serves as Senior Economist for the American Jobs Alliance and studies the New Space industry at the Merage School of Business, UC Irvine.