Why is space travel so expensive and often a bureaucratic nightmare?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sundancer, the proposed third prototype space habitat to be launched by Bigelow Aerospace, to be launched in 2009 or 2010. Private companies like Bigelow Aerospace are by nature less inclined to stay mum about illogical and stifling regulations.

If you've ever wondered why space travel is so expensive and complex, here's the article that explains one of the reasons why (h/t to Sean for sending the link). This is exactly why a lot of people have such hopes for the private space industry once it finally gets its bearings (=once SpaceX finally manages to launch a rocket successfully). They still have to deal with the same regulations but by nature they are less inclined to want to go along with them and excessive regulation is already making some of them quite edgy.

The first paragraph alone shows why:
IN THE spring of 2006 Robert Bigelow needed to take a stand on a trip to Russia to keep a satellite off the floor. The stand was made of aluminium. It had a circular base and legs. It was, says the entrepreneur and head of Bigelow Aerospace in Nevada, “indistinguishable from a common coffee table”. Nonetheless, the American authorities told Mr Bigelow that this coffee table was part of a satellite assembly and so counted as a munition. During the trip it would have to be guarded by two security officers at all times.
It is not only private companies that are suffering. In 2005 the European Space Agency concluded that ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation) made its co-operation with NASA’s Mars rover “too complicated to be feasible” and that it had to become more autonomous.

Mr Beavin explains that ITAR may define technology “exports” as any disclosure to foreign nationals, such as web posts, international scientific meetings and exchanges, conferences and technical data. “The academic world is used to sharing and it really makes it hard for scientific exchange. Nobody wants to be slapped with a gigantic fee or go to jail. It is scaring everyone into not talking, and that’s crippling for science.”

Around the world, space-faring nations such as China and India are making great progress, whether they have access to American technology or not. Mike Gold, director of Bigelow Aerospace’s office in Washington, DC, has nothing good to say about the country’s export policy: “if the purpose of ITAR is to lose billions of dollars of business, ship jobs overseas, and the Iranians and the Chinese get the same technology anyway, then mission accomplished.” The regime, he says, is obsolete and counterproductive.

Mr Gold believes that the State Department has failed to take the time and effort to distinguish between space technologies, as the law allows. Instead, he charges, the bureaucracy has taken the “safe and easy” option and declared everything to be a munition until proven otherwise.
The more success in the private industry we have the more we'll be able to see the following:
In December Bigelow Aerospace filed a commodity-jurisdiction request which would oblige the Directorate of Defence Trade Controls to rule whether one of its products, a set of inflatable space habitats, should be on the State Department’s munitions list. Although it is unclear how far the request will get, it may be the first direct challenge to the department’s implementation of ITAR for space technology.


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