"Commercial Space Transportation: Just Another Steep Climb?"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, D.C.
May 29, 2008

International Space Development Conference


Good afternoon. This conference has certainly gotten off to a rousing start, but before we split up into all of the parallel sessions later on today, it’s nice to have a chance to all get together to have a quick bite to eat.

I want to thank George Whitesides for inviting me to be part of the program this morning and for giving me the opportunity to share some additional thoughts here at lunch.

Given this very special opportunity, and the captive audience, I thought I’d focus on one of my favorite topics: commercial space transportation.

Of course, everyone in this room is quite familiar with the subject. But beyond those doors, commercial space sometimes suffers from a case of mistaken identity.

Some people think we all work for NASA. A few think we’re part of the military. Others who sit and watch TV at night or listen to satellite radio in their cars, seem never to have heard of us at all, even though commercial space transportation helps make those things possible.

So I thought I’d address some frequently asked questions about commercial space, especially now, as the questions begin to pop up about spaceflight being made available to private citizens.

A General Question

Let me begin with the most direct question I hear.

“Are you one of those space tourism people?  You know, the nutty rich folks who want to do all that risky stuff?”

I don’t know how you can get much more direct than that. Let me address those questions about risk, wealth, and mental health in the context of an historical coincidence.

As it happens, today is the 55th anniversary of the day Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Climbing Mount Everest is very dangerous.

The most recent figures I’ve seen show that there have been approximately 3,700 ascents since Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb, with more than 2,400 people reaching the summit. Over the years, more than 200 climbers have lost their lives in their attempt to reach that special point, more than 29,000 feet above sea level.

There can be no question that climbing Mount Everest is a risky personal choice.

So is riding a rocket into space.

Consider the implications for those who choose to go.

The Redstone rocket that carried Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom on suborbital flights was designed to throw a 500 kiloton nuclear warhead some 200 miles downrange. The Atlas of the Mercury program and the Titan of the Gemini days were designed as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

You don’t think it was dangerous to put people on those things?

Regardless of whether the 21st century space flight passenger is riding a somewhat conventional vertically-launched vehicle or some kind of horizontally-launched, rocket-powered spaceplane, it’s likely to have more than just a passing kinship with its predecessors.

Passengers will be riding a vessel packed with a volatile mix of carefully processed chemical ingredients, thousands of interdependent parts, and extremely sophisticated software. And they will be bound for an inhospitable environment far, far away from where they bought their tickets.

Private human space flight is like climbing Mount Everest with a lot farther to fall. It’s risky business.

What about the costs? 

The most common figure I hear for a suborbital rocket ride is around $200,000, or at least it will be to start. Who can afford that?

Well, you might try asking the folks that climb Mount Everest.

If you check the National Geographic Adventure Magazine, you will find that what they call the “semi-standard” guided climb is $65,000, plus up to $15,000 for additional items. The climbing permit alone is $25,000. I should hasten to add, there’s no charge for an FAA launch license. Anyway, if you add up a few of the “optional” expenses, like round-trip transportation, some Sherpas, extra oxygen bottles, tents, and the always handy satellite phone permits, it could easily total over $200,000. That’s assuming you don’t need a helicopter evacuation, that you choose not to make a donation to the local monastery, that you decline to buy prayer flags for the base camp, and that you decide not to pay for any of the ritual ceremonies, strongly recommended by the Sherpas, in order to appease the always powerful and sometimes temperamental mountain itself.

So then, why would anybody want to do either of these risky, expensive things?

When it comes to commercial human space flight, everyone expects that there will be plenty of thrills and chills, lots of once-in-a-lifetime moments, some breath-taking views, and a bunch of unforgettable sensations and emotions. I suppose it’s possible that there may be a few science experiments thrown in on the side.

On the other hand, when Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he climbed Mount Everest, he said — and I quote, here — “Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons … you really climb for the hell of it.”

I’m guessing you might hear a lot of would-be space passengers say something along those same lines. It’s unique, exhilarating, a chance you don’t want to let slip by but, in the end, Sir Edmund’s reason is probably reason enough.

A Question of Identity

I guess the next question I often hear is:  “What do you mean ‘commercial space?’  Doesn’t NASA do it all?”

To answer that, let me turn to Dr. Kathy Thornton. Many here will certainly recognize that name. As a NASA astronaut, she flew four times on the space shuttle. On STS-61 in December of 1993, she was part of the team that repaired the Hubble space telescope, and conducted two lengthy space walks in the process.

When her career as an astronaut came to an end, she had this to say. “The next time I go into space, I’ll be able to take my family with me.”

In those words are the seeds of the distinction between NASA and commercial space flight; two complementary, but none-the-less separate and discrete pieces of America’s overall space program.

The next time Dr. Thornton reaches space, it will be because she bought a ticket, and boarded a commercially-built, commercially-launched rocket, flown by a pilot who was not a government employee.

That’s a vital difference.

The commercial space flight sector is not Auto Zone for NASA, not just a parts supplier, not just one of the vendors in the supply chain.

The new commercial space industry is a separate and independent space transportation service provider. It is an industry happy to work with NASA and the DOD, not as a subcontractor, but as an equal and necessary ally, proud of its ELV history and focused on a promising RLV future.

A Question of Safety

Commercial space transportation really is on the move. But to keep moving, it will have to be safe, especially when passengers are involved.

That’s why the FAA already has regulations in place, based on informed consent, where the passenger has to be fully apprised of all the risks involved and then sign a form acknowledging that they know what they are getting into. That’s why the FAA insists on safety, safety and more safety. That’s why Congress approved the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, putting the FAA in charge of regulating commercial human space flight.

And that’s why when people say to us “aren’t you people a little too demanding, a little too insistent, a little too focused on checking and inspecting, and checking and inspecting again?” we always say, guilty as charged.

In fact, we’ve pretty much embraced the view of an advertisement I once read for the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship. In speaking of the ship’s luxury it said: “When a little too much is just about right.” 

The FAA gladly accepts that description when it comes to space flight safety.

A Question of Reality

So we arrive at another question?  “Is this for real?  I don’t see a whole lot going on.”

Good question. It is certainly true that you can’t launch a blueprint, you can’t fly a theory, and you can’t ride a promise. But you can put all those things together, take them to a fabrication facility, assemble them, and test them, first on the ground, and then in flight.

I admit that you can’t see much of tomorrow just yet, but you can see what tomorrow will be built upon.

In April, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation released a study of commercial space transportation’s impact on the U.S. economy. The figures captured the picture in 2006. In a nutshell, here’s what it showed.

  • $139 billion in economic activity
  • $35 billion in earnings
  • 729,000 jobs

Each of those numbers represents a substantial increase over the figures for the previous study, done in 2004. Please understand that none of the data includes anything about RLVs, the prime new factor that actually is the elephant in the room of tomorrow’s space operations.

The point is, what we have here is an economic engine built on a solid record that continues to generate jobs, earnings, and the kind of momentum to carry the industry to new levels of achievement.

There’s more we can see of this industry and it comes from overseas.

In April the European Space Agency issued a white paper called, “ESA’s position on privately-funded suborbital spaceflight.”  After looking it over, it sounds to me like they’re for it.

In fact, for those who suggest that one way to avoid so-called “regulatory burdens” in the United States is to go overseas, they should be aware of this ESA recommendation. “Civil aviation regulatory authorities of the countries concerned,” the paper says, “and the competent agencies of the European Community should be in the forefront of the setting up of a regulatory framework for Space Tourism in Europe.”

Obviously, there’s plenty of interest in space overseas, but I want to emphasize the regulatory aspect, because it reinforces the notion that other nations are starting to get down to the serious planning we’ve already begun in the United States.

A Question of Tomorrow

Which brings me to one more question: What will the future of space flight look like in the United States?

The standard way to answer that question would be to examine launch projections, something I and many others have done before.

Instead, let me point to something more subtle, but perhaps even more important.

To begin with, I want to extend my profound congratulations to NASA, in this, its 50th year, on the successful landing of Phoenix earlier this week. Perhaps no other organization in human history, with the exception of the major religions and a few national governments, has had a greater impact on mankind. As an instrument of national policy and vision, NASA has achieved milestones that had been the stuff of dreams since people first looked to the heavens.

That will continue. But NASA will no longer be alone, and its role will no longer be the same. Of course, NASA will still be involved in operating the International Space Station, at least for a while. But NASA is counting on commercial space to take over the responsibility for delivering crew and cargo to the ISS, so that it can focus on getting back to the Moon.

Times are changing. Things are going to be different.

NASA is headed out into the solar system. What NASA has achieved in low-earth orbit will soon be up to private hands. It will become part of the work of the commercial space community. It will happen because NASA paved the way, but NASA will no longer be the major player in low-earth orbit.

Private industry will be.

Now that is a change with major implications.

With private industry assuming the primary role in low-earth orbit, there will be more degrees of separation between policy made at the national level and outcomes in space. When it comes to low-earth orbit, launch and payload decisions will be determined more in laboratories, on campuses, at foundations, and in board rooms.

For 50 years, the shape of American activity in space has been framed by choices made by the votes of our duly-elected representatives, within the framework of budgets containing numerous competing priorities. That same practice will still apply to NASA and exploration. But with low-earth orbit activities moving to the private sector, things will be different.

The federal government will still, vigilantly and vigorously through its oversight and regulatory powers, exercise full and firm influence on the commercial space sector, insisting at all times on safe operations.

But it will be the private sector that sets the agenda for low-earth orbit activity.

When you think about it that is both remarkable and also inevitable. NASA was created as a civil agency, with an eye toward commercial operations and results that would benefit the public. In that sense, it has been the intermediate step linking the new world of rocketry to the world of New Space.

The pending emergence of commercial space is a testimonial not only to NASA but to the policy makers who created the agency.

Things are going to be different around here. Policy makers made it the goal. NASA made it possible. Commercial space transportation will make it happen from here on out.

A Question of Ability

And that, of course, raises one last pivotal question:  Can the private sector do this?  Can private industry bring affordable space access to a broader segment of the public?

I offer you a warning and a challenge, both in the words of familiar voices.

The warning comes from Alfred North Whitehead, the English mathematician and philosopher. “We must expect that the future will disclose dangers,” he said. “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.”

The challenge comes from Pablo Picasso. “I am always doing that which I cannot do,” he said, “in order that I may learn how to do it.”

To both of those views I would say, yes, commercial human spaceflight is dangerous. But the commercial world is learning how to do it.

And they will get it done.

Thank you very much.

###