"Commercial Space: Things Are Going to Be Different Around Here"
Dr. George C. Nield, Colorado Springs, CO
April 10, 2008
24th National Space Symposium, The Space Foundation
It’s always a pleasure to be here in Colorado Springs and to attend this inspiring gathering of aerospace professionals and spaceflight enthusiasts, and it’s certainly an honor to be part of today’s program. This morning I’d like to talk about some of the changes I expect to see in our nation’s space program over the next few years.
In the course of the last year or so, and with increasing frequency lately, people have started talking about what happens when the Space Shuttle completes its final mission and is officially retired, a little over two years from now. Of course, NASA and its contractors are working hard on designing the Orion crew capsule and the Ares booster, which are intended to allow our astronauts to return to the moon and resume our nation’s exploration of the solar system. But they’re not going to be ready for awhile.
And so, especially in the United States, many are worried.
What will happen during that roughly five year period when NASA has no crew-carrying vehicle to operate? How much will our space program suffer? Will the talent drift away? Will the interest fade? Will our reputation as the world leader in human space flight start to crumble?
A lot of people are worried about those things.
To some extent, so am I.
But let me tell you what worries me the most about those five years.
My office, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, regulates commercial space. What worries me is whether we will have the resources to handle the coming surge in commercial activity during those same five years.
I think all the time about the increase in our licensing activity, our permitting activity, the number of inspections we could face.
Maybe the skies will be quiet for NASA, but not for the FAA.
I worry about whether there is enough public awareness about the issues that rockets in the National Air Space System will bring. It’s something that the FAA is working on and preparing for, but that people outside our world don’t seem to be taking very seriously, at least so far.
So while many are worrying that the Shuttle gap is too wide and the time is too long, I’m frankly more worried about making sure we are prepared to do everything we need to do to handle the huge increase in business I see coming right around the corner.
Congress saw it coming back in 2004. They passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act that year, and directed the FAA to produce regulations for the world of commercial human space flight.
We’ve now completed that task, and we’re grateful for their foresight.
But, as so often happens when something is new, other people who are comfortable and familiar with the status quo, can too easily brush aside a prospect they are not yet able to see.
I’m here today to tell you that things are going to be different around here, and commercial space is the reason.
Between today and the scheduled resumption of crew-carrying flights by NASA vehicles, there’s going to be a dramatic increase in both permitted testing and licensed passenger-carrying flights by commercially-developed and operated reusable launch vehicles.
You are also going to see a new wave of expendable launch vehicle activity as new carriers enter the field, bring down the cost, and open up business possibilities that have remained fallow as launch prices have stayed in the stratosphere.
Things really are going to be different. I was reminded of that yet again, when I realized that yesterday was an important anniversary. On April 9, 1959, the brand-new NASA held a press conference and introduced the Mercury astronauts.
I found a transcript of the press conference online. It’s fascinating reading. But to me, the most remarkable thing about it isn’t what people said, but rather when they said it. That was 49 years ago — 49 years!
That’s so long ago that both men and women still wore hats and put on their Sunday best to take a trip on an airplane.
Now a lot has happened in space since then, but aside from the advances in technology, which have been substantial, the fundamental nature of our space program has not changed much in five decades.
NASA’s human space flight effort is, at its core, a federally funded research program, with flight opportunities limited to a fortunate handful of highly-trained, specially-selected people. That will certainly continue. NASA will go its own way as a result of national policy choices.
But commercial space will go its own way too, as a result of both business decisions and personal choices.
So where is it headed?
Well, NASA’s focus is shifting to exploration: to the moon, to Mars, and to what lies beyond. Commercial space is focusing on low-earth orbit and on suborbital flights. The NASA we have come to know and admire has made history while the nation and the world watched from a distance.
The commercial space sector that is emerging in front of us is all about personal engagement.
Things really are going to be different around here. Let me point to just a few examples of how and where.
Expanding the Franchise
First of all, commercial space is going to expand the franchise. And I mean that in two ways.
First, for both ELVs and RLVs, there will be more builders and operators. On the ELV side, capable and ambitious people are at work right now building rockets to take payloads to orbit at sharply reduced costs. In fact, NASA through its COTS program is doing its part to encourage the industry by inviting it to demonstrate that it is capable of servicing the International Space Station.
On the RLV side, our office is working with about a half dozen companies right now that are in the process of developing vehicles to take passengers into space.
That’s the second way commercial space will expand the “franchise.” More people will be able to fly in space. And as the number of people who have been there increases, the volume of voices who want to go, too, will also rise.
Of course, you know as well as I do that there are people who will say a trip on one of these suborbital flights is not the real deal, that instead of space flight, it’s only space lite, just a stunt.
Whenever I hear that, I have to shake my head. Why would anyone dismiss suborbital spaceflight as inconsequential when it was a suborbital flight that made Alan Shepherd a national hero and an international celebrity?
So, yes, things are going to be different, because what Alan Shepherd was able to do back in 1961, private citizens will soon be able to do, too. The change in perspective will originate with the buying public who will, by their interest and consumer choices, redefine the idea of space citizenship by expanding the franchise to include … them.
Changing the Scale: Transforming the Relationship
Another change that we should expect to see has to do with the size of the vehicles, the scale. One of the reasons that it doesn’t necessarily take a government to build a spaceship is in part, because the scale can be different.
Let me give you an example. While Saturn V moon rocket figures may be familiar to many of you, they’re still impressive: 36 stories high, 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The motor for the Saturn V launch-escape system alone produced 147,000 pounds of thrust, almost twice as much as the Redstone rocket that launched Alan Shepherd.
You won’t see Saturn V-class figures on the new commercial RLVs. The rockets will be much smaller, and they may or may not launch vertically. But those rockets will be enough to do the job, to take people into space. And they are going to transform the relationship between people and space. Let me put it this way. People know that NASA and its epic achievements were, metaphorically speaking, about Columbus and Magellan and Francis Drake.
Ultimately, commercial human space flight is about you and me and the guy next door.
Beyond that, the new commercial rockets will not only mean something to the people who fly on them. They will have meaning for the people who watch them.
I don’t know exactly how many people had the opportunity during the Apollo program to travel to Cape Canaveral to see the launch of a Saturn V. It was certainly a very exciting event and it attracted space enthusiasts from all over the world who were hoping to experience the thrill of seeing a launch in person instead of on a TV set at home. I know I’ll never forget the launches that I have been able to attend. But the commercial sector is going to be offering a variety of locations where people can come out and watch the launch and re-entry of passenger-carrying space vehicles. The point is not only that more people will be able to see a rocket launch. They will also be able to experience a spaceport.
And they will have access to the jobs that this new industry will produce.
The FAA has already licensed the operation of six launch sites: one in Florida, two in California, one in Virginia, in Alaska, and in Oklahoma. New Mexico is going through the license application process right now. And just last month, legislation was introduced in the Hawaii state legislature to initiate development of a spaceport there.
Space is in the process of coming to the public and the commercial sector is making that happen. Commercial space is transforming the relationship between people and rockets, between people and space. That which has up until now been remote, is becoming more accessible.
Changing the Market: Increasing the Volume
One other change that commercial space is bringing to the table has to do with the marketplace. In the conventional, economic sense of the term, NASA has never really had a market. Instead, it has had a mission, one performed with spectacular success across half a century of accomplishments.
The mission has grown over the years from putting a man into space, to putting people on the moon, to developing and flying a space transportation system, to building and maintaining the International Space Station.
NASA is a national institution, driven by goals established by the national leadership and funded by the nation’s taxpayers. And as a result, the number of manned space flights has been rather limited.
With the advent of space flights for commercial passengers, things will be different.
You may have heard the announcement two weeks ago by XCOR Aerospace that they are starting work on a vehicle to carry passengers. They, of course, are not alone. Scaled Composites, Blue Origin, SpaceDev, Rocketplane Global, Armadillo Aerospace, and several other companies are also in the hunt. We expect to see a number of FAA permitted tests of a variety of vehicles this year that will eventually lead to licensed, passenger-carrying flights.
Instead of a prescribed mission, commercial space has been concentrating on maintaining its established market, one built over nearly a quarter of a century, for putting payloads into orbit. We expect that market, consisting primarily of the launch of satellites for telecommunications, direct broadcast TV, and earth imaging, to continue at its present rate or perhaps to experience some modest growth in the years ahead. The real increase, the big change in the market, is going to come with the arrival of commercial human space flight. It will have to prove itself with safe operations, which is where the FAA comes in with our license requirements and inspections.
But once safe operations can be demonstrated, there is no doubt about it; the market is going to grow dramatically.
Today is not the day to try and put a figure on the number of flights. But it is the time to say again that things are going to be different because commercial human space flight is on the way.
In the years directly ahead of us, things may seem quiet at NASA. The opposite will be true in commercial space. NASA has set its sites on transporting humans to different worlds. Their aim now is the moon and the planets. The aim of commercial space is this one.
If the post-shuttle years result in an extended time on the ground for NASA, commercial space knows the feeling. The last time we saw a privately-built vehicle take a person to the edge of space was back in October of 2004, with the winning of the Ansari X-Prize.
Ever since that time, commercial designers and builders have been at work on the ground, and have had to listen to skeptics say “you haven’t done much lately, have you?” when just the opposite has been true. Launching is not the only measure of progress, a fact that NASA understands along with the commercial sector.
So the five-year hiatus from crewed flight for NASA isn’t the kind of setback its critics might claim any more than the years since the X-Prize victory have been setbacks for commercial space. They are just different phases of the path of progress for both NASA and commercial space flight.
For commercial space, the five years will be, increasingly, a time of flying. It will be a time of establishing new roles as suppliers of the International Space Station and as passenger carriers. It will be a time of new vehicles, new travelers, new witnesses to rocket launches, new business and job opportunities, and new ways to serve not only customers but the needs of the nation.
Existing spaceports will grow more active, and new ones will open. Passenger flights will increase. We also expect commercial space to start taking steps toward point-to-point travel, as prizes and other incentives emerge.
Times are changing. Things will be different.
So, as I bring these remarks to a close, let me try to convey that one more time, this time through the perspective of a world-class writer.
Recently, I came across a book about Michael Faraday, easily one of the most persistent and determined people that science has ever known. At the beginning of one of the chapters, I found a quote from Marcel Proust. It said: “The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new horizons, but in seeing with new eyes.”
There is surely truth in that. So I would ask those who are not yet convinced to keep their eyes open. Commercial space is coming into its own, just in time to convert those five years that worry us, into five years when space flight in the United States takes on new meaning, offers new opportunity, introduces itself to more people.
Things are going to be different around here. And commercial space is going to make it happen.
Thank you very much.