Boosted largely by scrappy start-ups funded by billionaires, today’s commercial space race sets the stage for everyday people to one day access cosmic territories entered only by an elite few, with established companies like Boeing trying to gain a foothold.
This increased participation has also ignited policy discussions, as regulators seek to develop new language to work within an increasingly diverse space.
Over the past few weeks, as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin rocketed to the edge of space and back, stakeholders have attempted to reevaluate what’s allowed to happen in microgravity.
For instance, the day Blue Origin blasted Amazon founder Jeff Bezos 351,000 feet in the air, the Federal Aviation Administration, which primarily sets air safety standards in the United States, reclassified who gets astronaut wings, limiting the title to people with mission-critical roles such as those acting as pilots or safety personnel and not passengers. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“The point is to highlight the people who have a major role, to reward that safety culture. Not to reward all future customers who fly to space,” Laura Forczyk, founder of the space industry analysis firm Astralytical, told The Technology 202.
After NASA rejected Blue Origin’s bid to build a moon lander, Bezos called on the organization to reconsider. On Tuesday, the Amazon CEO offered to waive $2 billion in fees if NASA accepts the bid, a move widely viewed as a public appeal to Congress to appropriate more funding to the project.
These may seem like siloed events on the surface, but space analysts say the moves are interconnected.
Fewer than 600 people have ever reached Earth’s orbit. But space firms are attempting to make the experience mainstream. As access to space becomes more democratized, new language will have to be adopted to describe roles and processes that previously didn’t exist — and to identify whom to hold responsible if something goes wrong.
“Space is no more just a domain for carrying out science experiments. It’s being opened up for exploration and utilization,” said Namrata Goswami, an independent space policy analyst and co-author of the space exploration book “Scramble for the Skies.” “Once you have that shift, priorities change.”
As Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX attempt to drive down costs, after completing multimillion-dollar crewed flights to the edge of space and back, it’s now prime time for policymakers to nail down a universal set of rules, Goswami said. Though increased human activity can create a debris problem, she added, it’s not about limiting the number of companies allowed to operate in space, it’s about requiring they take responsible action.
While falling short of actionable policy, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a memo earlier this month outlining five tenets for “responsible behavior” in space, including trajectory separation and planned flight notifications, among other tasks. Austin’s report called for further action beyond these minor classification and changes “within the U.S. Government and in international relations.”
Investment in space has already led to faster digital communication and more precise weather monitoring. Space innovations have trickled down to Earth in the form of smartphone cameras, air purifiers and jet engine turbines.
“We don’t know where the next century will take us. Maybe our grandchildren will be taking a trip to the moon,” Forczyk said. “These mini suborbital stops along the way will help us build that bridge.”
Our top tabs
Technology industry groups praised a $1 trillion infrastructure deal.
The groups said they’re encouraged by the agreement, which includes $65 billion for broadband infrastructure. Lawmakers still have to draft the legislation, which passed a significant hurdle Wednesday but will have to be carefully worded to pass the Senate, my colleague Tony Romm reports.
NCTA, the Internet & Television Association, said that while it still needs to see details of the plan, it is “encouraged that the bipartisan infrastructure deal directly addresses two critical elements of reaching universal connectivity — dedicating funding first and foremost to those regions without any broadband service, and providing financial assistance to help low-income Americans subscribe to this critical service.”
The Information Technology Industry Council is “encouraged by this bipartisan progress and look forward to learning more about the details of the plan, specifically efforts to close the digital divide and expand Internet access,” according to Andy Halataei, its executive vice president of government affairs.
And TechNet President and CEO Linda Moore applauded lawmakers and President Biden for coming together on the “historic” package, which she said would “create new opportunities for millions of Americans, spur economic growth, and strengthen American competitiveness.” She also urged Congress to continue working on the bill to send it to Biden “as soon as possible.” The Computer and Communications Industry Association, and BSA, the Software Alliance, also applauded the legislation’s broadband component.
Lina Khan took aim at major tech platforms in her first testimony before Congress as FTC chair.
Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan blamed major tech platforms for enabling rampant online fraud, the Wall Street Journal’s Ryan Tracy and John D. McKinnon report. But Republicans on the FTC and in Congress expressed opposition to some of Khan’s changes in the FTC. They say the changes bolster the power of Khan, a Big Tech skeptic.
“In the last few weeks, the commission has repeatedly changed policy direction without giving the public any real notice or right to be heard and, without any serious consideration, removed guidance from the public and the business community alike,” said Noah Phillips, one of two Republican FTC commissioners. “We can do better.”
Google and other major tech companies will require returning employees to get coronavirus vaccinations.
Facebook and Lyft followed Google’s lead in announcing vaccine requirements for employees who will be returning to the office in coming months, Heather Kelly and Gerrit De Vynck write. More companies could follow.
Major tech companies were among the first companies to close their offices for coronavirus-related concerns in 2020 and are seen as a bellwether for corporate America.
The announcements came as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread nationwide. Google and Lyft postponed their plans to return to the office, following a July delay by Apple. Twitter said it is immediately shutting down its San Francisco and New York offices; the company also announced a pause on its reopening plans.
Rant and rave
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed the “metaverse” on calls with investors this week, leading some to question whether the term has lost all meaning. Bloomberg’s Dina Bass:
Silicon Flatirons Executive Director Amie Stepanovich:
The New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz:
Lawmakers blasted a top judge for mirroring Google’s antitrust arguments.
A bipartisan group of top lawmakers — the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees’ antitrust panels — said in a letter to Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, that her arguments about antitrust policy and pending legislation displayed an “unusual, if not inappropriate” use of arguments by the tech giant, which is a party in federal lawsuits.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) were defending pending legislation that would boost the ability of state attorneys general to have antitrust cases remain in the court location of their choosing. Mauskopf’s office declined to comment.
A new bill would update the law that protects online children’s privacy.
The bill by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) would revamp the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which was passed in 1998. Rachel Lerman has more details here.
Inside the industry
- Former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Chris Krebs discusses misinformation and cybersecurity issues at a Washington Post Live event today at 3:30 p.m.
- Amazon holds an earnings call today at 5:30 p.m.
- NetChoice hosts an event on the implications of U.S. lawmakers and regulators adopting a European antitrust approach on Aug. 3 at noon.