In the week Elon Musk launched a sports car towards Mars, parliament has tried to bring space law up to date.
Fifty years ago this year, human beings for the first time in history escaped the earth’s orbit and actually went somewhere in the cosmos. Propelled by a Saturn V rocket – still the most powerful ever built – the three-man Apollo 8 spacecraft flew around the moon at Christmas 1968, paving the way for the following year’s historic landing.
By those standards, this week’s much publicised achievement of boosting a second-hand sports car into deep space from Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket looks a rather pathetic stunt.
But we’re not comparing like with like. Today, no democratic government could get away with a venture like Apollo 8. By today’s standards, the risks taken to fulfil President Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon before the decade was out were criminally rash. Three men were blasted into space on a rocket that had been tested only twice before; with the second of those tests revealing unexplained and potentially catastrophic oscillations. There was no lifeboat: Apollo 8 flew without the lunar module which, a couple of years later, was to save the crew of Apollo 13 when a fuel tank exploded on the outward journey to the moon.
By contrast, for all his bombastic talk of colonising Mars, SpaceX’s owner Elon Musk is playing a cautious and commercially realistic game. And one that creates big opportunities for lawyers. Musk’s achievement is to marry computer and rocket technology (much more difficult than rocket science, which was essentially sorted by Newton in 1687) to transform the economics of putting payloads into space. The stand-out image of this week’s space shot is not the silly starman in a car, but of the twin booster rockets landing simultaneously on their tails. After 1,000 years of unpredictable pyrotechnics it appears that rocketry has been tamed.
SpaceX is already the dominant player in the commercial satellite launching business: last year it made 18 Falcon launches, half a dozen of which re-used rocket stages, with a 100% success rate. Its nearest competitor, the ageing single-use Russian Soyuz, managed 10 launches, including one failure. Musk reckons that the new technology will cut the cost of launches by 90%. Boosting a payload 100 kilometres up – the nominal boundary of ‘space’ – will still be pricey, but not in a different league of costs to flying 12 kilometres up, like a long-haul Boeing.
Routine reliable economical spaceflight opens up all sorts of commercial possibilities, though, whatever Richard Branson says, space tourism remains a long shot. A sounder bet is probably the disruptive technology of miniature satellites (the buzzword is CubeSat) launched as constellations into low-earth orbits for purposes including remote sensing and communications. These again are a fraction of the cost of the current generation of large communications satellites parked in ‘geostationary’ orbit 36,000 kilometres up. And, unlike big geostationary satellites, which are most economically blasted off from equatorial sites such as Europe's spaceport in French Guiana, these miniature birds could be launched from the UK.
Which brings us to law reform. Remarkably, the government seems to be on the ball. This week the Space Industry Bill, which among other things creates new powers to license spaceports, completed its third reading in the commons. During its passage, ministers and opposition spokespeople have enthused about the future potential of an industry which already contributes £13.7bn a year to the UK economy. However, there are still areas of controversy, and we haven’t even got to the stage of applying for planning permission for a spaceport yet. One controversy is over the liability cap on spaceflight operators, currently set at €60m per satellite launch under the Outer Space Act 1986. If a rocket were to go bang in a bad way, the government would pick up the rest of the bill. A cap is essential if UK launches are to be competitive and insurable, but ministers have been reluctant to set a new figure. This will have to be addressed.
A bold decision also needs to be made about where to put the spaceport. I’d personally suggest Manston in north Kent, with its massive disused runway and easy connections to London and the continent, but any site will be a cause for controversy. Given the government’s inept handling of the Heathrow runway decision, we shouldn’t hold our breath.
Apparently Britain’s space industry already supports 38,000 jobs. If, thanks to new technology and a modern regulatory environment the UK becomes a real contender in the business, that could grow 10-fold. Obviously many will be in engineering and project management, but the new industry will need plenty of legal advice, too. The UK already has an historic competitive advantage there; let’s light the blue touchpaper.