The last decade and a half has seen an explosion in the private space industry. We’ve seen multiple new companies started many of which have now flown successful missions to the International Space Station. This is partly due to the regulatory framework that the USA adopted to spur on the private space industry as previously it was impenetrable for all but a few giant multinationals. Today congress passed a bill that ensures this regulatory framework can continue as is for some time whilst also providing a few provisions that will see a few major space projects continue for a while longer. In short it means that the amazing progress we’ve seen from the private space industry is likely to continue for at least the next decade.
Up until 2004 building and flying your own spacecraft (within the USA) was effectively illegal. Provisions were then made to allow commercial space flights by adopting a “learning period”, essentially preventing the FAA from enforcing flight regulations on private space companies. Whilst this doesn’t make them exempt from any law, ostensibly this transfers the responsibility onto any participants in private space flights, it does give private space companies the room they need to develop their technologies. That period was set to end next year however the recently passed bill will extend that for another 7 years before the Department of Transportation takes over and begins to fully regulate the industry.
There’s also further provisions for ensuring that private space companies can compete and innovate without unnecessary burdens. The first provision is the extension of the indemnification of commercial launches, essentially a risk sharing framework that ensures US based private space companies can compete with overseas launches. There’s also a directive to several government agencies to develop the proper oversight framework for commercial space activities. This will mean a formalization of the many ad-hoc processes that are currently used and should hopefully mean a reduction in some of the headaches that private space companies currently face.
Probably the biggest bit of news out of this bill however was the provision for extending the USA’s involvement in the International Space Station to 2024, a 4 year extension over the current mission time frame. The last time the deadline was extended was 6 years ago and nearly everyone thought that would be the end of it since that matched the originally intended lifespan of the station. Without a replacement forthcoming (Tiangong doesn’t count) this gives us a little more breathing room to come up with a replacement or better plan for the future of our only manned space station.
One interesting provision, and one I’m sure Planetary Resources is excited about, is the establishment of legal rights to resources recovered from space by a private entity. Essentially this means that if you were to say, mine an asteroid and send its resources down to Earth, you now have the same legal rights over them as you would if you mined them here. There’s also a directive in there for the president to pursue off-world resource exploration and recovery which will likely mean increased focus in this space. It’s still something of a nascent industry so it’s good to see it getting recognition at this level.
Of course all of this comes without additional budgetary measures for NASA et. al. to meet these goals however it does lay a firm groundwork for more funding to be put aside. Hopefully when the next budget rolls around these additional objectives will be taken into consideration as otherwise it could just end up putting more strain on NASA’s current projects. For the private space industry however it means a long extension for the conditions they’ve enjoyed over the past decade, conditions which have seen amazing progress. Hopefully the next decade is just as good as the first.
It’s been a long time coming but the first major milestone in getting a R18+ rating for games in Australia has just been hit: the bill has passed the lower house:
Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Justice Jason Clare today said that an R18+ category for computer games was another step closer today with legislation passing the House of Representatives.
The legislation passed the House of Representatives without amendment and will now move to the Senate for debate in coming weeks.
The reforms bring the classification of computer games into line with existing categories used to classify films. It also makes the Australian classification regime more consistent with international standards.
This is absolutely wonderful news, especially since the bill passed without any amendments to it. This means that the Liberal party has realised that there’s little point in fighting the legislation, especially in light of the parliamentary committee’s recommendations that were handed down just over 2 weeks ago. The next challenge for the bill will be the senate however with the support of Labor and the Greens it’s almost a sure thing that it will pass through there without incident and it will be law before we know it.
The current schedule for implementation has the law coming into effect at January 1st 2013. This is still a while off but it is a required part of the process as once this becomes law all the local governments have to pass accompanying legislation in order to regulate the sale of R18+ games in their state or territory. Unfortunately this means that we’ll could still have the weird double standards like we have for other R18+ material but at the very least it will mean that R18+ games will be available for distribution in Australia.
I’ve been reading some comments on other articles reporting the same news and it seems some people are confused about what the R18+ rating might entail. Whilst there will be a lot of games that will be able to resubmit and hopefully get the R18+ rating it won’t mean that any game that was given the dreaded RC rating will automatically get slapped with R18+. It is up to the publisher or distributer of the game to resubmit it for reclassification and should they not bother to resubmit the game will stay as NC. Additionally the introduction of a R18+ rating does not mean that we won’t see games given the NC rating in the future, only that such occurrences will be far more rare. There are games out there that would still exceed the limits of the R18+ rating but I’ve yet to see one that wouldn’t get NC if it was done in another medium.
It’s been a long, bitter fight to get the Australian government to recognise that the gamer community has matured far beyond what it was when the original classification scheme was produced, but we’re almost there. The success of this grass roots campaign can’t be traced back to one individual or organisation, it’s the cumulative effort of thousands of Australian gamers who rallied behind the cause and forced them to listen. It makes me immensely proud to say that I was a part of this and I’ll be even happier when I finally see it come to pass in less than a year’s time.
It seems that whenever I mention NASA and the US congress together I’ve never really got anything positive to say. Indeed my last 3 posts tagged congress are all critical of the government’s involvementin NASA’s affairs and how their constant medlinghas caused nothing but harm. Still I recognise that without congress’ involvement there wouldn’t be a NASA at all and that whilst I may lament the organisation being used as a part of pork barrell politics it at least keeps their budget from being drastically slashed. Today I was hoping to write about some of the more positive news that had come out of the US congress but unfortunately the relationship hasn’t changed one bit.
About 4 days ago saw the passing of a bill in congress that saw some funding approved for NASA. Now usually this would be something to celebrate but in true congressional style they’ve managed to bollocks it up once again:
The House Science and Technology Committee approved H.R. 5781 with strong bipartisan support July 22, sending forward a bill that authorizes only a small fraction of the $3.3 billion NASA sought to invest in a commercial crew transportation system over the next three years. The bill authorized $150 million through 2013 for commercial crew and another $300 million in the form of government-backed loans or loan guarantees. The measure also would continue much of the work being done under NASA’s Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort to build new rockets and spacecraft optimized for lunar missions that President Barack Obama targeted for termination in his 2011 spending proposal delivered to Congress in February.
Now whilst I’m excited at the fact that they’re adding another space shuttle flight to the manifest (as that means I’ll definitely be able to go and see it next year) the rest of the bill shows a complete disregard for Obama’s vision for spacethat was laid down at the start of this year. The idea of replacing all of NASA’s routine activities with cheaper commercial solutions was a sound idea, especially when companies like SpaceX are proving just how capable they are. $3.3 billion would have bought at a rough guess about 30 fully stacked Falcon 9 rockets with Dragon capsules on top, more than enough to tide NASA over for several years. $150 million would probably cover the cost of a single rocket and little more, meaning that all you’d really get would be one demonstration flight.
Keeping the Constellation program alive is something I can’t really support unless it gets a whole bucket load of new funding. Right now many of NASA’s other activities like robotic space exploration and science have suffered because the Constellation program is using resources that were once planned for them. The program’s vision was too ambitious for the amount of funding it was given and unless new money is brought in to complete it NASA will continue to suffer under its burden. You know that this is all done in the name of pork barrelling when the bill will “prohibit NASA from laying off civil servants for at least six months following the bill’s enactment”.
Most often the criticisms I see laid at the commercial alternatives to NASA’s own launch systems is that they don’t have the experience nor do they meet the safety ratings required for NASA’s human program. The first is somewhat valid as whilst companies like United Launch Alliance have a vast wealth of launch experience they have never actually launched people into space on one of their rockets. On the other hand however the requirements for man ratingare well known and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 conforms to all required specifications. ULA has also has specifications for man rated versions of their ATLAS-V and DELTA-V rockets so the notion that commercial space alternatives aren’t up to the task is plainly false.
The bill makes even less sense when you consider some of the most recent developments coming out of the commercial space industry. SpaceX just recently announced their plans for some new launch systems and boy are they impressive:
For the transition from Earth to Mars, however, SpaceX believes nuclear thermal is the preferred propulsion means for the piloted aspect of the mission, while solar-electric power could be used to transport supplies.
The U.S. government “should take the lead on nuclear and commercial industry should take the lead on building heavy-lift launch vehicles,” Markusic says. “Low-level propulsion technology research and development should be government-led, with a transition to flight development in 2025.”
A growth development, dubbed Falcon X Heavy, would employ nine engines clustered in three cores. Collectively these would generate 10.8 million lb. of thrust at liftoff and boost 125,000 kg. to orbit. The ultimate launch vehicle, the Falcon XX, stands as tall as the Saturn V, is configured with six engines in a single core and is designed to lift 140,000 kg. to LEO.
SpaceX’s new rockets are simply staggering in their specifications. The Falcon X Heavy already outpaces the Saturn V (the biggest rocket in history) and the Falcon XX is nipping at the heels of the planned Ares V. They’ve nailed the point that the private industry should be responsible for the more routine activities of getting into space as NASA has no real need to do this when cheaper, viable alternatives are available. Interestingly enough this is the first I’ve heard anyone talk about nuclear thermal propulsionin quite a long time and realistically I’ve always seen it as the next logical step in rocket technology once chemical propulsion reached its limits. Whether or not SpaceX’s push to get NASA to develop such technology gets off the ground is another matter however and it might be another decade before it sees any traction.
I’ve always been disillusioned with the US congress when it comes to meddling in NASA’s affairs and these recent developments haven’t done anything to help that. The private space sector is really starting to pick up steam and it just makes sense for NASA to drop their current launch systems in favor of cheaper alternatives. This will allow them to get back to their roots of pioneering in space rather than getting caught up in the routine activities that can be easily offloaded to someone else. With Elon Musk’s plan to retire to Mars I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more progress from the private sector in the decades to come and right now it looks likely that they’ll become the ones to inspire the next generation. Maybe then congress will wake up and let NASA do what they do best.