"Commercial Spaceflight 2009: Overcoming Eeyore"
Dr. George C. Nield, Orlando, FL
May 28, 2009
28th Annual International Space Development Conference
My thanks to the National Space Society for inviting me to be part of the program today, and to all of you for being here with me.
I think it's great that commercial space transportation is at the very top of the agenda for this conference. Because, in spite of a very long list of achievements by NASA and the civil space sector, I strongly believe that it will be commercial space transportation that will be the wave and the way of our nation's future in space.
Commercial space is the hungry, ambitious, passionate element of America's spaceflight efforts. If it still has the dust of the frontier on it, and if it has not yet earned the brightest lights on Broadway, I can say confidently that time, quality, safety, and a lot of hard work will soon take care of that.
The commercial space transportation industry is determined to establish itself as the keystone supporting the future of both suborbital space and low-earth orbit. In just the next few years, I expect it to begin setting the pace, establishing the trends, and capturing the imagination, as well as the business, of the general public.
It is, therefore, very appropriate that commercial space transportation opens these proceedings. It is fitting, as well, that this conference begins on a very historic day in May.
Fifty years ago today, on May 28, 1959, the United States launched a Jupiter missile into space with two passengers onboard: Able, a seven-pound female rhesus monkey, who was a native American, and Baker, a one-pound female squirrel monkey from Peru. During their 15-minute flight, they reached a top speed of over 10,000 miles per hour and a maximum altitude of over 300 miles. They were able to withstand a maximum acceleration of 38 times the normal pull of gravity, and experienced about 9 minutes of weightlessness before their successful recovery in the South Atlantic near Puerto Rico.
Now there's no way to know whether Able and Baker were able to enjoy their flight, or to appreciate its significance, but at the time, there were a number of protests by animal welfare groups. A statement from the League Against Cruel Sports expressed the belief that "this falls within the category of scientific devilry rather than scientific research … In the name of humanity we beg of you to drop these vile experiments."
I'm afraid that I was unable to find any press releases from the group on the latest Shuttle mission, so I'm not sure whether that assessment would also apply to human spaceflight.
Now in addition to being the anniversary of the launch of Able and Baker, May 28th was also the day back in 1937, that the Golden Gate Bridge was first opened to traffic. That event was celebrated with a flyover of 500 aircraft and the launch of 100 skyrockets.
You see, in those days, rockets were used to celebrate the completion of bridges. These days, rockets are about to become the bridge itself, connecting the world we've built so far to the world we plan to live in tomorrow.
Maybe that sounds a little optimistic to you. If that's the case, perhaps it's because we seem to be living in an unusually pessimistic time.
The Eeyore Effect
In fact, let me talk about that. It appears to me that a sullen weight seems to have temporarily settled on the entire American space effort.
NASA and its programs are in flux. ITAR is a persistent nemesis. Commercial human space flight isn't "there" yet. International competitors are pushing hard and doing well. Nothing seems to be the way it used to be.
It is different. Things are changing. Now that's no reason to be discouraged.
But some say we have lost our edge, lost our lead, lost our way. The economy is terrible. Woe is me.
To those who would prefer to convert any small misstep into evidence of total failure, I will admit in advance that spaceflight isn't easy and that we aren't going to go undefeated.
All I would ask is that the unconvinced not confuse the occasional bad day with the end of days.
In his landmark book, The Ordeal of Change, Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, wrote that we can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new.
You can't argue with that. Nor can you argue with the fact that these days we have been facing a number of wholly new things, many of which have not been entirely pleasant. That tends to throw people off their game.
The result has been what I would describe as the "Eeyore Effect," a term derived from the donkey in the children's stories, a creature that has lost its tail and lives in a thicket under a cloud.
If you have been listening and reading as I have, you know that attitude has become almost a palpable reaction, uncomfortably close to a prophecy preparing to fulfill itself.
It is a view that's entirely unjustified.
We work with an industry filled with promise, at a crossroads in both time and economics, when commercial space transportation can make an historic difference.
In fact, it already has.
It has helped revolutionize communications. It will change the way we launch satellites. It will increase the number of people who visit space. It will eventually accelerate the way we travel from one city on earth to another, and from a spaceport on earth to a station in space. It could conceivably help mitigate the space debris issue as entrepreneurs go to work on ways to consolidate and remove clutter. And many remain convinced of the huge potential that space-based systems would offer to address our energy needs by harnessing solar power.
So with all that going for the commercial space industry, it's important to head-off the "Eeyore Effect" with realistic assessments of conditions we face today.
Let me mention several.
To Hazard a Change
First, I want to repeat and underscore the fact that change for the better sometimes shows up dressed like a bad case of nerves.
This nation and nations around the world owe NASA an enormous debt. NASA has been the pacesetter for 50 years. Mankind's greatest accomplishments in space have carried the NASA logo and have benefited from the efforts of thousands of men and women who have served our country with selfless commitment.
Today, NASA is moving on. Its focus is on exploration. But NASA is changing, and there are many questions to be answered and choices to be made. Sometimes it's easier to do the science than make the policy. One thing seems clear. Whether it is next year or in a few years more, NASA's near-monopoly in low-earth orbit is going to be opened up to the entrepreneurs of private industry.
Some people, both at NASA and elsewhere, are not yet comfortable with that idea. It is up to commercial space transportation to help make them comfortable. Is that possible? If I can return to Eric Hoffer for a minute, he also said of change that we are not captives of our past, and that we are, and I quote, "possessed of infinite plasticity."
Those of us who work in the space business need to put aside the anxiety that is the companion of change, and focus instead on the potential of commercial space as a valued investment.
Don't expect change to be easy. But don't write it off because it's hard.
Let me suggest another anti-Eeyore measure.
Beware the Tyranny of the Timetable
As an engineer by training and experience, I am no stranger to timetables. But I have also come to the conclusion that many of those timetables were created on National Wishful Thinking Day.
So often, what passes for a timetable is really just a preliminary best guess.
I bring that up because it's been pointed out that 2009 is the fifth year since SpaceShipOne captured the Ansari X Prize, and it doesn't look like much has happened since. That, of course, is not the case. At least half a dozen commercial developers are hard at work on vehicles that are designed to carry humans up to the edge of space.
But outside the trade press, the pace seems slow, as if there were some schedule and commercial space transportation developers are falling behind it.
I suspect that Will Whitehorn will be bringing us up to date later on this morning with respect to Virgin Galactic's current plans, but with respect to timetables, let me just share one small news item with you.
Last month, after saying that SpaceShipTwo is expected to be fully assembled by the end of this year, Sir Richard Branson was quoted as saying this: "We will do more tests than NASA has flown missions before we take people up."
Is that a timetable?
To me it sounds like a strong, unequivocal statement that regardless of the time frame, Virgin Galactic will fly passengers when they are satisfied that everything possible has been done on the side of safety.
So, as for timetables, rather than giving reason for doubt, it sounds like the pace is being set by safety, and that should be encouraging to everyone.
Be Aware of the Competition
Let me give you one more reason to keep the sad Eeyore in his thicket and out of the space picture.
The prospect of commercial human space flight appeals to a number of nations. I've seen it for myself at conferences in Glasgow and Vienna. I've heard it in conversations with representatives from Japan and France during visits to our office in Washington.
The fact is, a number of nations now have highly-capable launch systems and ambitions to make use of them as contributors to their respective economies. When you have people around the globe pushing the edges of technology in pursuit of 21st century excellence, that is a strong and positive message that space has become a mainstream enterprise.
The United States wants to be cooperative. But let me be very clear about this. We also mean to be the very best in the commercial space business, delivering maximum quality, innovation, and reliability at the lowest price and in the safest possible way. That's why Congress put in place a precedent-setting safety regime to govern commercial human space flight, as well as a brand new approach to test the vehicles in which those people will fly.
I know that American launch vehicle developers will always stand up and salute success wherever it takes place. But I can tell you with equal certainty that they will always bow humbly to safety. They are determined to get this right.
So let the business competition begin. It is a sign of the economy to come.
This country and this planet will need commercial space in this century, not just to take people for an exciting trip to space but also to help sustain our way of life on Earth.
Some people have doubts.
There's nothing wrong with skepticism, but when it comes to commercial space there is no reason for pessimism.
For the practical and reasonable skeptics who don't think this is worth it, we understand. This won't cost you anything. You won't be bothered. You surely have a right to your own way.
But so do those who see space as the frontier of dreams and fame and fortune and personal fulfillment. In the age of discovery and Atlantic immigration, not everyone left the old world for the new. In fact, the majority stayed in Europe. Others left the comfortable and the familiar for a chance to build anew. Some fled despair. Many sought opportunity.
Whether you stayed or left, all of it was a risk.
Unquestionably, space is a risk today. But I believe that the business of commercial space transportation will become an idea pump for the 21st Century, an opportunity machine for people with the training, the skill, and the will, to make life better for all of us.
And space is the best opportunity we will have in our lifetime to encounter the unknown. Space is a limitless library, filled to infinity with possibilities and blank journals of discovery waiting for us to write our story.
When I began my remarks this morning, I spoke of bridges. Let me conclude the same way. A former American Secretary of State once said: "The statesman's duty is to bridge the gap between [the] nation's experience and [its] vision."
Those working today to make space our servant are doing the same thing, bridging the gap between our experience and our vision.
To those who believe it may be a bridge too far, I would simply say it is, in fact, a lot closer than you think.