Dr. George C. Nield, Vienna, Austria
February 17, 2009
Meeting of the United Nations COPUOS, Scientific and Technical Subcommittee
Mr. Chairman, members of the subcommittee and colleagues, thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.
My name is Dr. George Nield. I serve as the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States.
Let me begin with an historical footnote.
Fifty years ago today, the United States launched Vanguard 2, the first primitive weather satellite. Its simple objective was to measure cloud-cover in daylight. Made out of magnesium, it was spherical in shape, and just 20 inches in diameter. Inside were a pair of small telescopes and some mercury batteries that allowed it to operate for 19 days.
While that was half a century ago, the satellite is still in orbit, and it will be for another 250 years; now only an artifact from a previous era, and long without a voice.
But across the years, it speaks to us still as the symbol of a new beginning, an early breakthrough in the challenging work of spaceflight.
In 1959, when Vanguard 2 reached orbit, it joined just four other spacecraft circling the Earth. Each of those satellites was the product of government investment. Back then, spaceflight was limited to just two nations.
Today, the heavens are filled with satellites. They represent the work of many nations and the dreams of many others.
With the world surrounded by and reaching for outer space, we experience “beginnings” all the time as we continue our efforts to conquer the “final frontier.”
The United States is proud of its more than half century of space accomplishments. We have been witness to, and provided the leadership for, many of the changes that have brought mankind to our present level of achievement in space.
But as dramatic as those changes have been, they are joined now by the equally dramatic fact that the 50-year government monopoly on human spaceflight is about to come to an end.
Commercial launch operators, with promises of lower launch costs and the prospects of passenger ticket sales on their minds, will soon be taking on a far larger role in both suborbital and low-earth orbit spaceflight.
So this is a time of fresh starts in space, and with your indulgence, I want to briefly share with you some information about the new beginning for commercial space that we are making in America.
The office I lead has its roots in an Executive Order issued by President Ronald Reagan, 25 years ago this week. In the years since then, the commercial space transportation industry has firmly established itself, and the United States has enacted legislation and developed regulations to govern the operation of commercial launch vehicles. Since 1989, there have been 195 licensed commercial launches.
During this period, the commercial launch industry has become a significant economic contributor. In an FAA study of the industry as it existed in 2006 and its impact on the American economy, commercial space transportation accounted for $139 billion in economic activity; nearly $36 billion in earnings; and nearly 730,000 jobs.
Virtually all of those numbers reflect economic transactions tied to expendable launch vehicles. But as you know, change — another beginning, if you will — is underway even there. Reusable vehicles built by private entrepreneurs are starting to come into their own, a fact underscored by events of the last five years.
By every measure, 2004 was a milestone year in commercial space transportation. In October of that year, Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites successfully captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Those flights, the first to reach the edge of space aboard a privately built spacecraft, were licensed by our office.
Just 80 days after the awarding of the X-Prize, the U.S. Congress approved and the President signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. That legislation did a number of things.
It put the U.S. Administration and the Congress on the record as supporting Commercial Human Spaceflight.
It created experimental permits as a new tool for us to use in authorizing the testing of suborbital reusable rockets.
It directed our office to quickly develop regulations governing both crew and spaceflight participants and experimental permits.
And it established “informed consent” as the approach to be used in regulating the launch of space flight participants.
The notion of “informed consent” is very important. As Congress clearly reminded us, space flight is inherently risky. Therefore, those who choose to do it must do so voluntarily. They must be fully informed by the operators of the hazards involved and be willing to sign on the dotted line that they understand the risk and, of their own volition, are prepared to accept it.
So the 2004 legislation was an extraordinary new beginning, paving the way for the orderly development of commercial human spaceflight.
One of the additional things that made the legislation so special was that, as we all know, modern times rarely afford the chance to plan systematically for change. In the case of commercial human spaceflight, the United States government had the uncommon opportunity to prepare and plan ahead, and we have taken advantage of it.
Let me explain.
Early in this decade, the private entrepreneurial space flight sector in my country responded enthusiastically to the X-Prize challenge. That effort infused the industry with a new level of commitment, along with the confidence that private enterprise really did have the ability to blaze an independent trail to space.
To their very great credit, the President and the American Congress also embraced the prospect as realistic — very difficult, populated with risky unknowns, but nonetheless reasonably achievable under private auspices.
The White House prominently featured commercial space transportation in its Vision for U.S. Space Exploration. And the Congress established a regulatory framework for the industry to abide by and count upon as their work went forward.
It is the existence of that framework and the confidence and encouragement of national policy makers that, taken together, form the most significant contribution the federal government has made to the commercial space transportation effort.
All the rest is in the hands of private enterprise.
Fortunately, these twin efforts have made it possible for the industry to know what to expect from the government, and for the government to be clearly aware of where the industry is headed. I am pleased to report that the interaction is working.
I am further gratified that both the industry and the government have made safety the undisputed number one consideration. Without safety as the prevailing mandate, we could not otherwise succeed.
Our office has much work ahead of us.
For example, NASA, as you may know, has a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. It is designed to offer private companies the chance to demonstrate their ability to service the International Space Station. Our office will license those commercial launches.
Our office will also be responsible for issuing permits for the testing of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipTwo, Armadillo Aerospace’s new vertically-launched vehicles, XCOR’s suborbital rocket, and other commercial launch vehicles to be operated in the United States.
We have already acquired a fair amount of experience in these matters and are continuously building on what we have learned. This experience reminds us and reinforces the fact that the licensing function assigned to the Federal Aviation Administration is a principal means of helping to safeguard the uninvolved public.
I believe that the Office of Commercial Space Transportation and the work we have done are worthy of your attention as you plan your future activities in space.
You might choose to begin by visiting our website, where you will find our governing laws, our operating regulations, and our policies, along with information circulars, relevant information, and explanations. You will be able to view a complete list of our licensed launches as well as launches conducted under experimental permits.
And you can view the list of FAA licensed spaceports, including the one approved just two months ago for Spaceport America in New Mexico.
We welcome you as cyber visitors. And, if you are interested in more detailed interaction, we would be happy to speak with you in person.
We are very excited about our work and the future that work will help produce.
Nevertheless, worldwide, commercial space operations are, comparatively speaking, in their infancy.
Especially when it comes to commercial human space flight, vehicle development is only just now beginning.
Our crew and passenger regulations have yet to be proven under actual launch conditions. We recognize that generally speaking the unknowns far outweigh the familiar. The truth of the matter is that the industry and we, as well, have a great deal to demonstrate on the way to achieving credibility. It is without question a gauntlet of great daring, but we believe that success here can help reshape the world’s future.
So if it is perhaps premature to reach conclusions about how everything from hardware to regulations to international protocols will fit together, it is nevertheless an ideal time for open conversation about commercial space transportation.
The FAA believes those conversations are essential. In fact, we welcome them, and we would like to be a party to them wherever and whenever they occur.
It has been our experience in the United States that an approach that leads to phased and systematic advances has thus far proven its worth. True, such a process takes time and the progress is not always in a straight line. But we have kept at it, and we are prepared to bring that approach to the future interaction that we expect with our international colleagues.
We have some experience here, as well.
As you know, the United States was a principal in both the Apollo-Soyuz and Shuttle-Mir programs. We were the primary architect of the International Space Station. We are proud to have carried to orbit astronauts from many nations. So we are not strangers to international cooperation in space.
In fact, history shows that the United States began our space effort during the International Geophysical Year more than half a century ago.
There is much to do in space. And there is much to ask of the world.
A key issue ahead of us is to explore the matter of commercial operators working in space with commercial entities from other nations and perhaps also with other nations themselves. We expect to be willing listeners as well as contributors along the way as we examine what can work to the best advantage of all parties.
We look forward to working with you to begin to figure that out.
Earthbound as most of us are, the work will not be easy. But I believe and I am confident that it can produce historic results for Earth and all who live here.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.