Easily missed in the news-media blitz after the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman was some potentially important space news.

The U.S. Air Force Eastern Range and its safety oversight of launches could be overhauled or, in the view of some, all but disbanded.

The Eastern Range’s regulatory authority over scheduling, safety and other aspects of every launch vehicle lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center has long been pointed at as slowing down advancement and innovation at the spaceport.

Smaller, private operators in particular have grumbled that more progress could be made toward modernizing launch vehicles and lowering the cost of space flight if it were not for the over-reaching regulatory arm of “the range.”

Often, “range safety” gets talked about as though they were some mysterious force lording over space flight operations off the east coast.

There’s always plenty of debate about whether the range, and the overall bureaucratic process of getting approved to fly out of the Cape, is an awful burden on companies or a necessary safeguard.

The truth is, it’s a little of both.

Companies like SpaceX have been working with the range to try to find a middle ground between some of the hard and fast “rules of the range,” a middle ground that could allow for some use of off-the-shelf components that might lower costs. More of that kind of bargaining and adjusting could only help making flight to low-earth orbit more accessible, and frequent, and open the door to innovation.

But there is a line that needs to be drawn at safety-related decisions and, hopefully, the ongoing discussions about a future version of the range will result in protecting some indepedent authority for those kinds of calls.

Ceding authority over launch safety decisions to the operator of each mission, meaning to people whose decisions could be driven by their own cost and schedule pressures, is problematic. One of the range’s chief functions is to protect people and property here along the eastern coast and other populated areas in the flight path of rockets blasting off from here.

Rocket launches are controlled explosions and the vehicles flying from KSC and the Cape are often loaded with volatile, toxic substances. Explosions or errant rockets and boosters pose a threat to people and property and there still remains some need to keep an eye on that.

In the space business, over many decades, nearly every accident investigation report includes references to mission managers allowing costs and schedule pressure push them to make bad decisions. It’s human nature. One function the range has always provided is an outside voice in those decisions that is focused solely on making sure that whatever is on the pad or flying over us isn’t posing undue risk to what’s below.

An independent safety voice is the one thing that needs protecting in any modernization or evolution of the Eastern Range.

That said, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition as some are arguing. The range’s operation can evolve without sacrificing safety and we will be watching carefully as decisions are made to make sure public safety gets due attention.