"A Modern-Day 'Thinkorium'"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, D.C.
May 21, 2009
Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee Meeting
Good morning. On behalf of all of us at the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, I’d like to welcome the members of COMSTAC and all of our guests.
I’d also like to offer my thanks to Dr. Wegner for his excellent presentation on some of the exciting things taking place in the Operationally Responsive Space arena.
I don’t know how many of you are aware of it, but this is a very special day for those of us who work at the FAA and for all of those who love flying.
It was on May 21, 1927, that Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris. And five years later, to the day, in 1932, Amelia Earhart landed in Ireland.
Today is also the anniversary of the birth of Glenn Curtis.
He’s the one I want to talk about for just a minute.
A lot of you are probably already familiar with his accomplishments, but as a motorcyclist, Curtis was once known as “the fastest man alive.” In aviation, he would eventually win the Gordon Bennett Cup, the Collier Trophy, and become known as the Father of Naval Aviation.
And there was something else.
Along with Alexander Graham Bell, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge and two others, he was a founder of the Aerial Experiment Association, a small but enlightened group of aviation innovators. According to Curtis, the members liked to gather nightly to discuss all kinds of topics ranging from motorcycles, to kites, to airfoils, landing gear, engines, the torque effects of propellers, and much more.
Because of their ideas and thorough-going discussions of those ideas, this small group put itself at the leading edge of whatever was coming next in their industry.
Of course, all that was a long time ago, all the way back in 1907. But the important thing for us as we gather here today is the existence of the group itself and also the name of the room in which they met.
The room was attached to Glenn Curtis’ shop and by unanimous agreement the members called the room the “thinkorium.”
So here we are at the FAA, 102 years later, in the age of commercial rockets, and we have our own analog for that setting.
The room we’re in may be officially known as the “Bessie Coleman Conference Room,” but I like to think that COMSTAC would qualify as the members of a modern day “thinkorium.”
The thinking represented on this advisory committee is as “hands-onto-tomorrow” as it’s possible to get in commercial space transportation.
There is extensive experience on this committee. There is insight, good sense, and original thinking. And it also reflects that critically balanced combination of the enthusiasm to move quickly and the wisdom to proceed carefully.
This new version of the “thinkorium” has much to offer, and it has certainly been successful over the years.
But I have come to believe that perhaps those of us at AST have done a little more talking than we should and, consequently, have been missing out on the full value of the thinking of the COMSTAC membership.
My hope is to change that.
We need to do a better job of tapping in to the expertise of the COMSTAC members, to have more robust discussions reflecting diverse opinions on difficult issues. I suppose that involves a risk that the meetings might become a little less formal, perhaps even more animated.
As we begin to shift the COMSTAC operational focus, maybe we need to be as realistic as possible. So I think we should aim for something that’s more than a high-level seminar but falls somewhat short of a bar fight; then play it by ear from there.
It’s worth the risk of some occasional polemics, I think, if the result is the kind of exchanges that produce fresh thinking and fresh directions, as well as challenges and progress for us all.
I’ve asked Brenda Parker to work with the COMSTAC members to see how we can bring more of their thinking to bear in these meetings, and I’m always available to discuss this further.
One of the reasons we need to hear more from COMSTAC is because we’re hearing more from commercial space transportation generally.
Our last COMSTAC meeting was October 30, 2008. Just listen to some of the milestones achieved since then.
The Aerospace Corporation issued the FAA/AST sponsored, congressionally mandated report, “Analysis of Human Space Flight Safety.”
SpaceX conducted a full-mission-duration test firing of the Falcon 9 first stage; XCOR test fired the engine for the Lynx; and Scaled conducted the first test flights of WhiteKnightTwo.
AST issued Amateur Rocket regulations.
We awarded a license for operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
NASA announced the selection of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for $3.5 billion worth of contracts to service the International Space Station.
In February the Cosmos-Iridium collision took place, a very significant event for anyone interested in space operations.
The same month, AST conducted the 12th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference.
And in March, Charles Simonyi became the first private explorer to complete a second mission to space.
AST has also ramped up its engagement in the international arenas with visits by space representatives from both France and Japan. And I had the opportunity to speak to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna.
What all this adds up to is that commercial space transportation is on the move. We need to keep pace with the changes. That means guidance and ideas from COMSTAC. You’ve been doing a great job so far.
I just think that we have to widen the stage, raise the platform, make sure COMSTAC has an enhanced forum to address the issues facing us now, and those that will be facing us in the future.
It is both appropriate and entirely accurate to make the comparison between the “thinkorium” members of early aviation and today’s COMSTAC members, who are engaging in commercial space transportation. This is your time. This is a great time to be involved in spaceflight. And we need you more than ever.
So I’d like to extend my thanks to all of you along with a promise from AST to talk less and listen more, to be more of a promoter and facilitator in COMSTAC’s truly important work.
Before I wrap things up, let me speak of Dr. Alex Liang.
With his passing, COMSTAC, the FAA and the Department of Transportation have lost not only a fine mind and devoted professional. We have also lost a good friend.
As Will mentioned, Alex was appointed to COMSTAC in 1996. He became the chair of the Technology and Innovation Working Group in 2002 where he headed the work on the annual GSO Forecast.
He had a long and successful career with the Aerospace Corporation where he last served as the General Manager in the Vehicle Systems Division.
COMSTAC will miss him. The AST staff will miss him. And I will miss him. So on behalf of all of us, let me extend our deepest sympathy to Alex’s family and to his colleagues at the Aerospace Corporation.
Let me also say in memory of Alex and as a representative of the beneficiaries of his work, thank you for a job well done.