Twenty-five years ago today, the first commercially licensed rocket was launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The Starfire 1 sounding rocket, funded by Space Services Inc. of America, lifted off on 30 March 1989. It carried a payload of microgravity experiments sponsored by the Consortium for Materials Development in Space of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, one of 16 commercial development consortia created by NASA during the Reagan Administration. According to the New York Times, the experiments studied the mixing of liquids, curing of plastic foam, liquid coating of glass surfaces, epoxy reactions, and sintering of metal powder in microgravity.

Former NASA astronaut Deke Slayton, president of SSI of America, said the launch “went great… the experimenters are happy as pigs in a mud sty.”

Starfire 1 was launched under a license from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST). OCST was created by the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984. The Commercial Space Launch Act was part of the Reagan Administration’s drive to privatize the space industry. It was enacted to create a single point of contact for launch licensing, eliminating a myriad of confusing licensing requirements from a multitude of government agencies, which was holding back the commercial launch industry.

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation (now a branch of the Federal Aviation Administration) still has sole authority to issue commercial launch licenses. Recently, however, NASA has attempted to reassert regulatory authority over private launch vehicles launches through its Commercial Crew and Cargo programs. This has resulted in a touchy situation. As a customer for private launch vehicles, NASA has an obvious right to decide which vehicles are safe or reliable enough for its needs. There is some concern, however, that NASA’s requirements will be pushed onto other commercial customers.

Unfortunately, many of the Reagan Administration’s commercial space initiatives still have not been completed. Congress accepted the privatization of commercial satellite launchers (which was a practical necessity after the Challenger accident) but rejected the Administration’s attempt to privatize weather and earth-resources (Landsat) satellites.

Congress argued that earth-sensing was an inherently governmental function, which could not be performed by private enterprise. Today, however, there are a number of commercial remote-sensing satellites, with names like WorldView, GeoEye, and Ikonos. These were recently joined by a new generation of small, low-cost imagine satellites with unique capabilities: Planet Lab’s flock of Doves and Skybox Imaging’s SkySat-1. Nevertheless, NASA continues to run the Landsat program at taxpayers’ expense.

Weather satellites remain a government monopoly, even though the government struggles to provide continuous data coverage.

As for those 16 commercial development consortia, most have apparently ceased to exist. A few are still in operation, however. The Space Engineering Research Center, located at Texas A&M University, was spun off to the State of Texas. Today, the Space Engineering Research Center is involved in a number of projects, including working with Citizens in Space to develop the Lynx Cub Payload Carrier.

Written by Astro1 on March 30th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General), Space History

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