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  July 31, 2006
Interview* with Glenn Reynolds
Instapundit, Law Professor, and Space Advocate
* via email
 

Glenn Reynolds is Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee. He is a prolific scholar with many publications in leading law journals. However, he is best known as the author of the weblog, Instapundit, one of the most widely-read American political weblogs. He also blogs at GlennReynolds.com, hosted by MSNBC.

Prof. Reynolds is a long time space activist and has written extensively on space law. For example, he was a co-author on the book Outer Space: Problems of Law and Policy (2nd ed. 1997). He has been executive chairman of the National Space Society and a member of the White House Advisory Panel on Space Policy.

His most recent book is An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths. It includes a chapter on space and in it he discusses how private and commerical efforts are changing the way space exploration and development are carried out.

Prof. Reynolds also writes frequently for TCS Daily and his essays often deals with space related topics such as NASA's return to the Moon program and space elevators.

Inside the Genesis 1
A view from inside the Genesis 1 inflatable module currently in orbit. The project is financed by the private company Bigelow Aerospace. Genesis 1 is just the first in a series of prototypes that will lead to a large fully functional habitat with a human crew in the 2010-2012 time frame.
(Photo credits: Bigelow Aerospace)


On the side, Prof. Reynolds runs Wonderdog Records, a music studio and production company in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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Prof. Reynolds was kind enough to answer my queries on space activism, space law, and politics. I was also keen to hear more about his views on how space development and human spaceflight are moving from government monopolized endeavors to activies in which private companies and the general public can participate.


Glenn Reynolds
Prof. Glenn Harlan Reynolds
(Bio at Univ. of Tennessee)

HS: > So how did you first become interested in space?

Reynolds:> Some of my earliest memories are of watching Mercury and Gemini launches, and I thought that space was cool and interesting from the beginning. I still do.

HS: > When you first started to pursue space law, were you advised to go instead into an area that was more down to earth?

Reynolds:> I went to Yale Law School, where Myres McDougal, Harold Lasswell, Ivan Vlasic and Nick Katzenbach had done pioneering work in the 1960s, so it didn't seem quite as farfetched as it might have elsewhere. I wrote a paper on the subject under Eugene Rostow that was published, so it wasn't too bad. I did get a variety of Star-Trek-themed jokes from classmates, of course.

HS: > Are you finding much interest in space law among the current generation of law students?

Reynolds:> Yes. I'm teaching the course this fall and it's significantly oversubscribed.

HS: > You have been involved with space advocacy for a long time and you devote a whole chapter of your new book to space. Since the 1960s, space has never been even a minor issue in the political scene except perhaps in some districts with big NASA centers. Short of an approaching asteroid impact or alien invasion, this looks difficult to change. How might an army of grass roots space advocates go about moving space development into at least the tail end of the top 10 or 15 issues on which any candidate for a federal office is expected to have a clearly defined position?

Reynolds:> It's very hard. Space activism can raise the profile of issues, but you have to deliver votes, in nontrivial quantities in key districts, to really affect things. The good news is that space activism has been far more effective in getting the regulatory deadwood cleared from the path of commercial space, because with

The MDRS facilities
The Mars Society sponsors Mars analog stations like this one in Utah. Teams of volunteers carry out simulations of life and work on a Mars base. The aim is to develop technologies and operational techniques that could apply someday to actual facilities on the Red Planet .
(Photo credits: Ben Huset)
Guido Meyer on ATV
The low cost and highly successful Lunar Prospector mission detected hydrogen in the regolith at the lunar poles. The hydrogen is suspected to be in water ice. The project was conceived and initially led by space activists.
(Graphics credits: NASA)

less pork involved members of Congress and the Executive are more receptive to reasoned arguments than they would be where significant dollars are involved.

HS: > In your book you strongly recommend that the President's Space Council be reconstituted and you list some of the general issues with which it should deal such as over-concentration in the aerospace industry and the high costs of space activities. If a new president in 2009 asked you to head his or her Space Council and to lay out a set of reforms for US space policy, what would be your top two or three recommendations?

Reynolds:> Well, I'd like to keep the Vice President as head of the Space Council, so I doubt I'll be offered the job . . . I'd encourage a prize-based approach, like the X-Prize and NASA's (small) Centennial Challenge grants. I'd also encourage more money in fairly basic R&D stuff: materials, engine technology, the like, all focused on the needs of commercial rather than military uses. And I'd try to promote space tourism, as I think it's an important economic, and political, engine for more progress in space.

HS: >I see that you are currently on the National Space Society's board of advisors. How do you think the NSS and other activist organizations could best take advantage of the Internet to utilize the army of space enthusiasts out there?

Reynolds:> Internet activism is usually broad but shallow -- you can get people to send an email or sign a petition or maybe donate money but it's hard to get long-term, committed effort. I'm not sure how you solve that problem, but I suspect that you need a sense of community to keep people involved. That's hard, though, with the inevitable flamewars that seem to go with Internet activity.

HS: > It was common in novels from the golden age of space sci-fi in the 1940s and 50s to include a rich mogul who funded the development of a spaceship or space station or whatever else was needed to get the story off the ground. By the 1970s such plot devices seemed quaint since everyone knew you needed many billions of dollars and tens of thousands of government employees to do anything of significance in space.

Armadillo Aerospace flight test
A "perfect test flight" on June 14, 2004 of a vertical takeoff and landing rocket vehicle developed by the semi-professional group Armadillo Aerospace, which is led and funded by famous Id Software programmer John Carmack. See the video of the flight.
(Photo credits: Armadillo Aerospace)

Today we actually do see rich moguls funding private spaceships and space stations. It appears that technology has reduced the costs of such projects while the wealth of moguls interested in space has increased. The two trends crossed and we suddenly have a private spaceflight industry.

If some future president decided to follow the advice of many scientists and eliminate human spaceflight from NASA, do you think that it is conceivable that privately funded spaceflight could succeed on its own and get humanity permanently established in space?

Reynolds:> Yes, it's very much back to the future now, with people like Jeff Bezos funding space ventures. I think that NASA is growing steadily less relevant to the growth of human spaceflight, and I think that's probably inevitable given NASA's bureaucratic ossification. To his credit, Michael Griffin seems to have a firm grip on reality, and isn't succumbing to the usual NASA temptation to snuff out anything that might be a rival.

Moonand Mars flags
Direct-to-home (DTH) satellite TV currently has over 25 million subscribers in the US alone. Home satellite reception began in the early 1980s when hobbyists and rural residents began to pick off satellite signals, particularly TV programming distributed to cable TV outlets. The growth and size of this C-band audience convinced investors to support companies like DishTV and DirecTV and their development of the small dish digital systems that made sateliite TV into today's mass market service.

HS: > I really appreciated the theme of your book since a central tenet of my website is that everyone can participate in space exploration and development and that groups of enthusiasts and students can carry out ambitious space projects. For example, amateur rocketry clubs during the 1920s and 30s made enormous contributions to the early development of rockets. A resurgence of experimental rocketry by amateurs and students today is continuing this tradition of innovation. Similarly, the AMSAT movement, which emerged from the amateur radio community, has a long line of "firsts" in the development of microsatellites. (The German AMSAT group even has a Mars probe in development.)

A number of participants in amateur and student space projects have gone on to form startup companies that are building commercial rocket vehicles and other space technologies. A fervent hope in the "alt.space" community is that space development will start to follow the bottom-up model of the personal computer and Internet revolutions, which involved a strong symbiotic relationship among enthusiasts, who provided markets and generated new ideas, and startup companies, which developed those new ideas into products and services. Do you think that is a valid model for space? How might space development be similar and how might it differ?


Reynolds:>
I very much hope it works this way. The downside is that the capital costs are much higher for space than for computing -- the minimum efficient scale for a space launch venture has to be big enough to build and operate multiple rockets, which is fairly big. I think, though, that there's room for small-scale effort on a lot of subsidiary fronts. And the minimum efficient scale isn't THAT big compared to other industries: I remember touring the McDonnell Douglas Delta factory back in the 1990s and being struck by how it looked like cottage industry compared to, say, an automobile or aircraft factory.


HS: >
A problem I see with the grassroots movements and organizations that you describe in An Army of Davids, is that they tend to be vulnerable when they come into conflict with government and big companies. This is particularly true for technical hobbies. For example, rocketry groups have been battling for years with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms over the Bureau's attempts to classify one of their favorite fuels (ammonium perchlorate) as an explosive despite clear proof that it is not.

Similarly, as reported in a recent article in Wired, the study of chemistry by young people and amateurs has become very difficult as many previously common chemicals fall under increasingly strict controls. Wired talks about the owners of a popular chemistry store on the web being charged with selling chemicals to make fireworks, though the same chemicals can be used in many other ways. The amateur radio community periodically has to fight to protect the radio bands reserved for it.

These technical hobby communities are not especially big and rich and they struggle to raise money to take on these legal battles and that leaves a lot less for doing substantive work. Do you think it would be feasible or desirable to set up some sort of foundation or "legal defense fund" to support and protect technical hobbies?

Spaceward Competitions
The NASA Centennial Challenges Program and the SpaceWard Foundation are sponsoring competitons to develop two technologies that will be essential for space elevators: high strength fibers for the elevator cables and climbers that can travel up and down the cables. The first event occurred in the second competition will take place at the X PRIZE Cup event in Las Cruces NM during October 20-21.


Reynolds:> We really need something like that -- just try to buy the kind of chemistry set that was readily available 50 yers ago. I'd like to see someone with some money take this cause on. Technical hobbies produce engineers and great ideas, but they're less common -- at least in the get-your-hand-dirty fields -- than they used to be.

Stardust at Home
Stardust@Home
In this program, volunteers analyze images of the samples of a comet recently returned to earth from space by the Stardust spacecraft.

Other science-analysis-at-home projects include: SETI @ Home and systemic- characterizing extrasolar planetary systems.

HS: > There is a lot of talk in Congress about supporting science/engineering education but Congress-persons generally are oblivious to the technical hobbies despite the fact that they are incredibly important in attracting students into science and engineering and in nurturing their skills. Maybe there could be some sort of legislation to recognize technical hobby groups officially? For example, they could certify an organization like ARRL as a national treasure!

Reynolds:> I'd like to see that.

HS: > Starting with Tito's flight, space tourism has been transformed from a complete fantasy to an actual industry. (Something like a billion dollars worldwide has been committed to development of spaceports and suborbital space vehicles.) I'm a wild-eyed optimist, of course, but I think I sense that space settlement and accessing space resources ( e.g. lunar and asteroid materials, space solar power, etc.) are slowly starting to make a similar transition from fantasy to believability if not reality. As that transition progresses, the treaties and laws that govern space development start to become serious issues rather than just theoretical topics for debates at space conferences.

As it stands now, do you see any major legal or treaty impediments to projects such as, say, a commercial lunar base, extraction of water from a lunar polar crater, or prospecting for platinum group metals on the Moon or an asteroid?

Reynolds:> Yes, the "giggle factor" of space tourism, high in the 1980s and even the 1990s, is largely gone now. That's a major accomplishment. I don't see any major legal impediments to any of the activities you describe, though I'm afraid there might be bureaucratic resistance. However, the space community has actually been pretty effective in minimizing that sort of resistance.

HS: > You've writen quite a bit about space elevators. What will be some of the legal/regulatory challenges that they will face?

Reynolds:> One interesting question is whether space elevators will be "space objects" under the Outer Space Treaty, etc. Arguably they're extensions of the territory below, since they're not in orbit. The term "space object" isn't clearly defined, but it seems to involve launching, which doesn't really fit space elevators.

HS: > One company that has an asteroid probe on its drawing board has talked about claiming an asteroid as its own when the spacecraft reaches it. Do you think that would be a good idea? Or would it be better to follow the example of ocean fishing and simply extract resources without making any specific property claims?

Reynolds:> I've written on both approaches. I wouldn't mind seeing legislation -- akin to the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act -- that would explicitly recognize U.S. citizens' rights to do this sort of thing while expressly disclaiming any assertion of U.S. sovereignty over such bodies.

SpaceDev NEAP
SpaceDev's proposed
Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP)
(Graphic credits: SpaceDev)

HS: > Something I've been curious about is the legal status of derelict spacecraft. As the "in-space" capability grows and tools like space tugs become available, it may be tempting for, say, some space habitat residents to go out and grab an old satellite or two to bring back for spare parts, radiation shielding, etc. Are there space salvage rules in place to govern this?

Reynolds:> Spacecraft, even derelict ones, remain subject to the registry of the launching state; there's really no such thing as "space salvage" in the maritime sense, and space lawyers have been trying to figure a way around that. Of course, as the launching state remains liable for damage by spacecraft on its registry, it's likely to consent to salvage, except where secret military spacecraft are involved.

Resources

* Space Activism
* Space Angel Investors
* Space Law Resources
* Space Legislation
* Space Prizes
* Space Resources Ownership
* Space Science participation
* Space Transport Legal/Regulatory topics
* Space Tourism

HS: > The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act set the general framework for the development of regulations to govern personal spaceflight and the launch vehicles that will carry them. The basic approach is to put the protection of the uninvolved public as the top priority for regulations and let passengers simply take well-informed risks. Most of the companies developing suborbital RLVs strongly supported the bill. Burt Rutan, however, has argued against it, saying that it would have been better to follow a more standard aviation style certification route for the vehicles and to make protecting the passengers the top priority. Do you have any thoughts on this and the general issue of how to regulate a young spaceflight industry?

Reynolds:> I think that the current approach is pretty good; given the state of the art, the only really effective way to protect passengers is to ground the vehicle. That's like aviation in the 1920s. I think that Burt is trying to apply the formula of more modern aviation to an industry that isn't there yet.

HS: > A big area of contention in conference discussions about space tourism involve the issues of accident liability and insurance. A common belief, for example, is that signed waivers, no matter how well informed, will never prevent the families of those killed in a vehicle accident from suing a space tourist company into oblivion. However, ski resorts, parachuting clubs, ATV companies, etc. seem to survive OK despite a steady rate of accidents. Are they doing something that companies building and operating space tourist vehicles could emulate to protect themselves?

Reynolds:> Yes. I think that fears of litigation are exaggerated here. People may sue, but they will likely lose, as with other extreme sports.

HS: > The ITAR export restrictions on space technology have become a real disaster for the whole space industry and especially for the small startup companies, which can't afford staffs of lawyers to deal with all the red tape involved. It interferes with what should be simple activities such as hiring engineers from Europe or getting insurance from Lloyds of London for a new rocketship. Do you think there is any chance that ITAR might be reformed anytime soon? Do you have any specific suggestions on how to reform it?

Reynolds:> It's often possible to lobby away bureaucratic impediments, but on the other hand the control of missile technology is a nontrivial matter. In light of current events, I think ITAR restraints will be an issue for a decade or so after which the technology will be so widespread it won't matter.

HS: > Will we one day read updates posted by Instapundit while he is aboard a suborbital space tourist vehicle? (Or maybe from the ISS after you rake in mega-bucks from the movie version of An Army of Davids!)

Reynolds:> Let's hope!

HS: > Thanks, Glenn.


More about Prof. Reynolds at:
UT College of Law faculty profile

Glenn Reynolds - Wikipedia
Bio at Cato Unbound
Essay at Pajamas Media Advisory Board
Bio at National Space Society Advisory Board

You can hear an interview with Mr. Reynolds at EyeOnBooks.

For more about space law see
Space Law Resources and
SpaceLawStation.com

CubeSat at Univ. of Tokyo
Technicians at the University of Tokyo handle a CubeSat.
The CubeSat standardized nanosat design has become
very popular with university groups and many have made it into orbit.


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