Making the rules in space: When does careful become crushing?

Making the rules in space: When does careful become crushing?
© Getty Images

NASA is tasked, by law, with the long-term goal of expanding human presence in space. This immense and incredibly long-term task requires a very forward-looking perspective tempered by humility.

Planning for our future in space necessarily means proceeding from a place of profound ignorance in an environment that continually confounds our expectations. The technocratic tendency when managing the unknown is to eliminate all uncertainty. However, we should be wary of attempts to address uncertainty by piling on rules, regulations and requirements before we adequately understand the problems we are facing.

The long-term and wildly unpredictable nature of space exploration almost guarantees running into high-consequence, low-probability “black swan” events. Some of these “black swans” will involve incredibly good fortune, others will be terrible disasters. We also know that a diverse investment portfolio is not only better able to weather adversity but to get lucky and capitalize on good fortune when it appears.

ADVERTISEMENT

In space investment, diversity means partnerships with other countries, throughout industry, and across academia, because every new approach opens up the solution space just a little more.

This diversity also extends to different problem-solving approaches. The United States and Russia have very different engineering cultures, but the differences between those cultures have ultimately produced a healthy and robust International Space Station. Likewise, within the U.S., some approaches to building spaceflight systems are very analysis intensive while others rely on a more empirical (i.e. test and fly) methodology.

At some date in the far-off future, when we can muse about the history of space travel from the comfort of our Martian timeshare, it may make perfect sense to absolutely favor one approach over the other. But we are still relatively new to space and are still learning; it is too early to declare which approach will work best in the long term.

Over time, the task of extending human presence in space requires normalizing space activities. But normalizing what we do in space can run counter to maintaining a diverse portfolio of actors and approaches to space. One way we normalize space activity is through the creation of rules, regulations and requirements. However, if setting requirements, drafting rules, and writing regulations get too far in front of our understanding, we are inviting disaster.

The analysis-heavy, centrally-directed approach to space systems, particularly those where the government is intimately involved, can sometimes manage regulations more nimbly because the waiver process may, paradoxically, be more responsive. Where the government is closely involved in program management, regulation can be a lot closer to self-certification. Self-certification provides inherent advantages in speed and flexibility. For instance, if the NASA process for managing spaceflight waivers had been far more cumbersome, it is unclear that the Space Shuttle would have flown more than a few times, if at all.

ADVERTISEMENT

Other approaches to space involve moving some or all the engineering activities out of government into the private sector, in the hopes that the private sector will be able to produce otherwise unavailable efficiencies. This sounds good in practice, but we must recognize that shifting some management responsibilities does not alleviate the government responsibility to regulate and look out after the public good.

But imprudent regulation impairs private sector efforts, simply because they may have a harder time getting relief from government rules than, let’s say, the DoD might. Unnecessarily stringent rules, requirements, and regulations discourage success. The precautionary principle has its appeal, but when the underlying activity itself is relatively new and uncertain, precautionary restrictions quickly turn into outright prohibition. Any arbitrary prohibition limits the diversity of our national spaceflight portfolio.

It may seem that this or that actor might benefit from favoritism, permissive oversight, or other unfair advantages. But while everybody trying to do something new in space benefits from distinct benefits and advantages, they also face unique obstacles and difficulties.

While one space company grapples with overenthusiastic regulators, another wrestles with unchecked requirements growth. In either case, if we create unnecessary restrictions before we grasp the underlying capability, we may prevent ourselves from finding workable solutions. In the end, it does not matter if there are problems with regulations or requirements if either one prevents us from solving the problems we face.

From the perspective of our national investment in space, each company, non-governmental entity, and international partner is testing out a different theory of success. A century or two from now, historians will probably look back and wonder that we didn’t see that this or that attempt was doomed to failure. But right now, we must recognize the fact that we are still learning. The point right now is to try many different things to see what will and won’t work.

If we arbitrarily restrict solutions or limit our options, we run the real risk of bypassing needed solutions to our problems. The unchecked growth of regulations, rules and requirements inhibits space activity, regardless of who is doing the designing and building. We should be very wary of using such tools to pick winners and losers at this early stage. Without allowing even a few imperfect successes at the outset, requirements and regulations are just prohibition dressed in good intentions.

G. Ryan Faith is a space policy consultant who previously served as a professional staff member supporting the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Faith was previously VICE Media’s Defense and Security editor and a research analyst for the Space Foundation.