I had an excellent conversation a few weeks ago about how current patent law produces ‘chilling effects’ on software innovations. This got me thinking about what sort of things have these same chilling effects on space innovations and what can be done to reduce them (space is cold enough already.)

Two big space-tech coolants come immediately to mind – ITAR and extreme institutional risk aversion.

Yet another space-tech acronym, ITAR is a US law that stands for International Traffic in Arms Regulations. [Aside: the number of space-related acronyms compared with the number of acronyms in other areas has never been explained to my satisfaction. Any insight would be welcome.] It’s list of technologies that could be used in making devastating weapons, and thus forbids the sharing of those technologies with other countries (regardless of how friendly they are.) And surprise! Most technologies that go into building and launching satellites can also be used to build and launch ICBM’s and spy satellites. ITAR prevents many US companies and researchers from collaborating with international partners. This damping of collaboration in space technology chills the growth of complex idea-sharing networks that drive innovation.

Flight certification requirements have a well-documented chilling effect on space-tech innovation. The institutional risk aversion has been pretty accurately caricatured by the statement “To fly, a technology needs to be flight certified, but you can’t flight certify something without flying it.” Although that is of course not entirely true, there certainly is far less wiggle room for experimentation than in other areas. Of course, that’s in part because a non-flight certified technology poses a risk that could result in a massive loss. 

Thus, the trick is developing systems that isolate the risks posed by unknown technologies – allowing lots of tests, lots of failures, but at the same time lots of successes. I would pose that this will come about not through the meticulous analysis and care currently given to each component of a mission, but through a way to make them cheaper and dirtier.