"Follow the Arrows"
Dr. George C. Nield, Arlington, VA
February 5, 2009

12th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference


Good morning.

And welcome to the FAA’s 12th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference. This year, for the first time, we are pleased to have a sponsorship partner, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. As the world’s largest aerospace professional society, the AIAA is extremely well-equipped to organize forums like this one to help those of us who work in the space business to get together and share both our challenges and our accomplishments, and we greatly appreciate their support for this event.

We are also very pleased to have all of you here with us today. Thanks for joining us.

Forty-five years ago this week, the FAA and the U.S. Air Force initiated a significant research effort, one that in hindsight, seems as remarkable for its boldness as much as its technology. The name of the program was Operation Bongo Mark 2. Its objective was to determine whether the American public could learn to live with sonic booms on a regular and frequent basis, such as might be experienced if the country were to have a fleet of supersonic transports flying every day in the national airspace system.

Test aircraft used included the F-104 Starfighter and the B-58 Hustler. The test subjects were the inhabitants of Oklahoma City — all 500,000 of them. Over a six-month period, they were exposed to 1254 sonic booms — on average, about eight per day. The good news is that 73 percent of the people reported that they could live with that kind of impact indefinitely. The bad news is that about 25 percent of the population considered the booms to be unacceptable. About 15,000 complaints were received, with 4,900 claims filed against the government, most for cracked plaster and broken windows.

I suspect that the government might not be willing to conduct that kind of experiment today. But if that’s the case, is there anything we would be willing to do, in an effort to aid the development of a safe and successful industry? How about a project to investigate the feasibility of regularly flying rockets near populated areas? Well, we can dream…

Our conference this year takes place at a time of transition. It is a time of hope and good will. But it is also a time when, given the state of the economy, much is unknown, and even more is unclear.

Although troubling, it’s not like this is the first time that the way ahead has been hard to see.

Let me give you an example.

A very long time ago, in fact, it was in February of 1540 — the explorer Francisco de Coronado led an expedition to North America. There, among other things, members of his party became the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon.

Coronado himself, however, went a different way and encountered a completely flat horizon — featureless, without a tree, a shrub, or a landmark to guide him. This area would one day become known as Kansas, the state with the motto that challenges all of us to look skyward: “To the stars with difficulties.”

In any case, with no reference points by which to set their course, Coronado’s explorers chose a direction in which to march, and then shot an arrow in that direction and followed it. When the party reached the spot where the arrow had landed, they fired another, and then another, following each one in an effort to stay oriented and to keep making progress towards their destination.

Ultimately they did not find the gold they were hoping for. But collectively, what they did find opened up unlimited opportunities for the future.

And at least on that one occasion, they did it by following the arrows.

In commercial space transportation, we have been building and following the arrows for years.

In fact, this is the 25th anniversary of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. And the theme of this conference, “Launching the New Era,” is a reference to our journey towards the new horizon of commercial human spaceflight, this time with a clear destination in mind, and using arrows of much greater reach.

Let’s look back very briefly at a few of those.

Major Arrows

On February 24, 1984 President Reagan signed Executive Order 12465. It designated the Department of Transportation as the lead agency to promote and encourage commercial expendable launch vehicles.

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation was part of the Secretary’s Office until November 16, 1995, when it officially became a line of business within the FAA, where it remains today.

During that span of time, between President Reagan and President Obama, there has been a whole quiver of arrows pointing the way to the future.

On March 29, 1989, for example, the first commercial rocket launch to be licensed under the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 took place. It was a two-stage Black Brant rocket owned by Space Services Incorporated, and it was launched from White Sands, New Mexico.

Following 165 commercial ELV launches, we saw the first licensed launch by an RLV in 2004, when SpaceShipOne took flight. The total has now reached 195 licensed launches, all completed without any fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage to the uninvolved public. We are proud of that record and proud of the industry that achieved it.

Besides the launches, there’s also been a lot of activity on the legislative and regulatory fronts that has helped commercial space to continue to make progress.

But distinguished as the record is, it can still have the feel of museums, long ago and far away. If you’re not Papa John’s Pizza or the Macintosh computer — both 25 years old in 2009 — making a silver anniversary tangible isn’t easy.

So it seems to me, the best option for celebrating 25 years of commercial space transportation is not to celebrate it at all.

Instead, let’s review the last 25 months to see just how active commercial space really is. After that, we will look ahead about 25 months to see what we’re likely to see in future.

The Last 25 Months

Since January of 2007, there have been 12 commercial launches licensed by the Office of Commercial Space Transportation and another 14 permitted launches.

During that period the final rule for flights involving crew and passengers took effect, and the final regulations for experimental permits were issued. We also published a major update to our Amateur Rocket regulations, and the Aerospace Corporation completed the congressionally mandated report on Human Space Flight Safety.

In just the last 25 months, we dedicated the Oklahoma spaceport and issued a license for the operation of Spaceport America in New Mexico, with whom Virgin Galactic recently signed a 20-year lease.

Virgin Galactic’s partner, Scaled Composites, has also been busy. In January they unveiled a model of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, rolled out the real thing in July, and flew it in December.

In November of 2007, Space X broke ground on their launch complex at Cape Canaveral. In November of 2008, they conducted a 9-engine test-fire of their Falcon 9 booster, and then at the end of the year, completed integrating the vehicle at the Cape.

In just the last 25 months …

  • Bigelow Aerospace orbited its second subscale test vehicle.
  • Orbital Sciences was selected to participate in the COTS program and announced it will develop and test its new rocket at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island.
  • XCOR unveiled the design of its Lynx suborbital vehicle and test fired its 5K18 engine; and Armadillo Aerospace captured Level I of the Lunar Lander Challenge.
  • All of those systems may become museum pieces someday, but today they are examples of the contemporary arrows of commercial space. They represent momentum. This is an industry on the move.

But moving to where? What does the next 25 months look like?

The Next 25 Months

Well, according to the current plan, the first flight of Orbital’s new Taurus II rocket will take place in late 2010.

The Space X website manifest lists 11 more flights through 2010.

XCOR plans test flights of the Lynx in 2010 and has received deposits for more than 20 passenger flights so far.

Scaled Composites is expected to be busy testing both WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. And Bigelow Aerospace has announced plans to launch their Sundancer module early in the next decade.

So whether you look back 25 months, or look ahead 25 months, one can see concrete progress on either side of today.

And that’s just in the United States, where so many arrows are either on the fly or ready to launch.

But What about the Economy?

While all these things are real, so too, is the condition of the economy. And around the world, the financial situation is well known — and not good.

What will that mean for commercial space transportation and commercial human spaceflight?

Could it slow things down? Of course it could. We all know the menacing numbers … from car sales, to home foreclosures, to layoffs. Even construction on the Dubai skyscraper — 2,559 feet and 160 stories high so far — has stopped for the next year because of the financial crisis. A lot of plans could be modified by the economic downturn.

But let me point out something else.

More than seventy years ago, when finances in the 1930s were in disarray just about everywhere, aviation was entering its Golden Age.

In the desperately dark financial times between 1930 and 1936, American Airlines was born. So were Swiss Air, Aer Lingus, Air France, British Airways, and the predecessor of Continental Airlines.

The DC-3 flew for the first time. TWA inaugurated passenger flights between New York and Los Angeles. The Rolls Royce Merlin engine was born.

Now here we are again, in an economy that’s unpredictable, vulnerable, and worrisome. How, you might ask, can you talk about new arrows in commercial space when financing is hard and so much wealth has vanished?

Let me suggest this to you.

On the other side of this frightening time, a new economy is waiting and it will be expecting a lot from us. The new economy coming our way will be leaner, more agile and more disciplined. It will be focused on the “new,” the ability to find better, less costly ways to do new things.

Commercial space makes modern global communications possible. It makes possible a night of popcorn and television. The modern world without commercial space transportation would not be the truly modern world.

An industry that can show it has more ties with tomorrow than yesterday will have an advantage. And the energy, imagination, and skill of the newcomers in my view, will be a powerful attraction to investors and to a new generation of young people making career choices.

What it comes down to is that I believe the commercial space transportation industry was well-positioned before the economic downturn, and it has not been disabled by recent events. A new horizon, a new economy, is out there, ready to hear what commercial space transportation has to offer. It’s up to us to keep firing and following the arrows that will help inspire the age to come and the economy to come with it.

The world of the last 25 years is our history. But the commercial space legacy is the one we will create in the 25 years ahead of us, as the arrow flies.

Thank you very much.

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