With space tourism and commercial astronaut flights coming soon in the United States, Congress and the public need a better understanding of the risks of spaceflight, says the freshman chair of the House space subcommittee .
“We don’t want to put humans at risk,” Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) said in an interview. “We don’t want to take unnecessary risk, but going into space in and of itself, it is critical that we do it. It impacts our live in so many ways, including the tech we rely on today. That means a willingness to take on risk … so I think that we have to have a broader conversation about what those levels of risk look like, and when it is acceptable to take some of those risks.”
Horn, the former head of government affairs for the Space Foundation, gave a speech Feb. 13 at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C. suggesting the government could have more oversight of commercial lunar missions and satellite servicing, matters that are not covered fully under current regulation. But in this Forbes interview, she focused on the human spaceflight piece — the part that carries the most direct risk as people launch into space as tourists or commercial astronauts.
Her comments came on Monday (March 4), just one day after an uncrewed SpaceX commercial crew vehicle docked at the International Space Station for the first time, and less than two weeks after Virgin Galactic made its second flight beyond the U.S. Army’s 50-mile boundary that is defined as the beginning of space. Both companies, along with Boeing that is building the Spaceliner commercial crew vehicle, may move forward with operational flights within the next year or two, depending on testing progress.
Horn, who was elected to Congress in November, said that while the United States has a robust commercial space industry and a burgeoning human spaceflight energy, Congress has not done its role in fully supporting these initiatives. “A lack of strategic, long-term and consistent policy directives from the Congress,” as Horn termed it, made it difficult for NASA to complete its commercial crew program — so she applauded the agency for persisting and getting as far as it did.
One of her first acts as chair will be discussing the reauthorization of NASA, including the role of commercial space and civil space and how the two sides work together as Congress makes funding decisions for space technology and infrastructure.
She said that members of Congress will need to be educated on spaceflight to educate policy-makers, as well as meaningfully participate in discussions, about matters such as Trump’s desire to create a separate Space Force branch of the military, and NASA’s groundwork in formulating a Lunar Gateway space station in the 2020s. Horn said she isn’t sure where commercial space will fit in with these initiatives, but she is willing to consider it. Whatever the direction of these programs, she said it is necessary to consider them in the larger regulatory environment, without overregulating the commercial space industry.
“It’s my desire as a chair to take a broad view of space and also to be clear on what we can do to prepare for ourselves for the next iteration [of the industry], and give clear directions to NASA and the commercial space sector. We’re not just thinking in silos, but having a broader understanding of the interplay of these different sectors of space — not just now, but into the future for 10 to 15 years.”