"Time to Fly"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, D.C.
September 16, 2008

Women in Aerospace Program on Commercial Space


Thank you for inviting me to be part of the panel this evening.

I thought I’d spend a few minutes today talking about the idea of time and how it relates to commercial space transportation. I think a good place to start is, well, on the college campus.

Each August, Beloit College publishes something they call the “Mindset List.” It’s about the two million or so students headed off to their freshman year in the college classroom. What the list does is describe things that have always been facts of life for these young people.

Let me quote, directly from the list, a few of those facts of life for the class of 2012.

The Green Bay Packers have always had the same starting quarterback — well, almost always.

Throughout their lives, IBM has never made typewriters.

Caller ID has always been available on phones.

Electronic filing of tax returns has always been an option.

GPS satellite navigation systems have always been available.

The Hubble Space Telescope has always been in orbit.

For those of us whose college years are well behind them, the list is more than just a curiosity. It actually has a special poignancy. Many of the things that today’s first-time college students have lived with all their lives were actually innovations for the rest of us.

The class of 2012, however, will join us in experiencing an innovation new to all our lives — commercial human space flight. Its time is coming.

Now I know people have been saying that for a few years, and the fact that it’s taking a while has begun to raise some questions. In fact, I read an article a couple of weeks ago in which the author, doubted that the private sector was up to the job, questioned whether there was really a market for space tourism, and said that things were going so slowly that it might never actually happen.

Time — especially time passing more deliberately than originally foreseen — can have that kind of impact. The skeptics come out. The biases rise. The doubts begin — all as a product of time.

So let me tell you how I feel about the future of commercial space transportation and commercial human space flight. But let me do it in the words of an American hero. Here are the words:

“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”

The person who said that is buried not far from here at National Cathedral. Her name was Helen Keller and I agree with her completely.

Now I’m no Pollyanna. I’m not even a proselytizer. I’m an engineer. And engineers don’t typically romanticize what’s in front of them or they aren’t engineers very long.

So let me say with complete objectivity that right now, as we gather tonight, the first steps in ushering in a new era of commercial human spaceflight are well underway.

We are beginning to do this, and it isn’t just talk. It’s action — lots of actions. Let me point to just a few of the things that have happened this calendar year.

There have been eight commercial launches licensed by the FAA.

NASA selected Orbital Sciences for the COTS competition and Orbital in turn announced it will develop and test its new Taurus 2 launch vehicle at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia.

The State of Virginia enacted legislation providing that beginning in 2009, no tax will be charged on revenue from commercial human spaceflight launch services and training.

XCOR unveiled its design of the Lynx spacecraft intended to take human passengers on suborbital space flights.

Sir Richard Branson and Scaled Composites’ Burt Rutan held a rollout ceremony for the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, with testing to begin later this year.

At Oshkosh, the Rocket Racing League conducted the first public demonstrations of its rocket-powered aircraft.

And my office released a study on the Economic Impact of Commercial Space Transportation on the U.S. Economy. Bottom line? In 2006 commercial space accounted for over $139 billion in economic activity, well over $35 billion in earnings, and nearly 730,000 jobs.

The list I just read to you represents concrete steps towards a specific technological milestone, one that began as an illusive dream. But it’s a dream transforming itself into a way to safely carry people into space, create new businesses, make money, and literally transform space transportation in the 21st Century.

In fact, I firmly believe that when historians looks back on this time, they will conclude that, regardless of what becomes of the internal combustion engine, the single biggest transportation milestone in the first half of this century will be the shift of primary responsibility for suborbital and low-earth-orbit spaceflight operations from government hands into private hands.

Now let me make it clear that I understand the perspective of the skeptics.

But I would ask them to appreciate as well, the enormously difficult, state-of-the-art work that industry is doing in the effort to reconfigure America’s capabilities in space transportation.

While the government track record extends back fifty years to the birth of NASA, the commercial roadmap reaches out into the future, where all of this is new territory — challenging for sure, but manageable, and doable.

Even so, the question remains why is it taking so long? And the answer is — it isn’t taking so long. It’s simply taking as long as necessary.

If perhaps reality was originally coated with the effervescence of “so close we can almost touch it,” the industry remains no less driven toward its goal, but wisely governed by the commitment to proceed safely.

A little over a month ago, as part of the FAA’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, I was interviewed by MSNBC. One of the questions from Alan Boyle was about why — and I quote — “it’s taken longer than people might have thought to get to this new spaceflight era.”

I’ll tell you what I told Alan Boyle.

This industry is focused on safety. These companies recognize how important safety is and what a misstep or shortcut could mean to the whole industry. So they’re taking it one step at a time, doing real work, producing real hardware, doing everything they can on the ground before a vehicle heads for the air and beyond.

What it comes down to is that timetables are really just targets to guide the work. It’s unarguably true that the sooner the delivery, the sooner the revenues.

But in this industry, the ultimate guide is safety.

And if that takes a little more time, it is not an indication of “it can’t be done.” It’s a sign of a full-out commitment to do it right.

Is it easy? Of course not.

Can it be done safely? That’s the real issue.

The fact is, anyone who boards a rocket for a ride into space will always have risk as a fellow passenger. The industry and the FAA are determined to minimize that risk as much as possible.

Safety, then, governs the time it takes to put human passengers on commercial space flights. We will give it everything we have, but we know things will not always go our way.

In that regard, Henry David Thoreau once said this:  “In the long run you hit only what you aim at. Therefore, though you should fail immediately, you had better aim at something high.”

We are determined to minimize the setbacks, mindful that we are aiming just about as high as we can but are absolutely determined to get there safely.

Everything I’ve seen in the industry, everything we do at the FAA, is focused on doing exactly that.

Thank you very much.

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