"Where the Match Meets the Candle: Igniting the Space Economy"
Dr. George C. Nield, Arlington, Virginia
February 10, 2010

13th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference


Welcome and thank you all for coming.

Let me start with a salute to our co-host, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Eighty years ago this spring, twelve people — most of them science fiction writers — met in a New York apartment to form the American Interplanetary Society. The group eventually changed its name to the American Rocket Society, and in 1963 merged with the Institute of Aerospace Sciences to form the AIAA.

Today, with more than 35,000 individual members and 90 corporate members, with local sections and international technical committees, with the publication of books, journals, and standards, and with numerous conferences and workshops being organized every year, AIAA has clearly become the pre-eminent aerospace professional society. They have shown what can happen when you begin with a little fiction and some very large dreams and hold fast to both until the fiction becomes fact and the dreams start to come true.

So congratulations to AIAA for the impact that you are making on our industry and on our profession, and please accept the FAA’s thanks and appreciation for your partnership in this year’s conference.

Given the change in direction of our nation’s space programs that was announced last week, I can’t think of a better time to gather together to talk about commercial space transportation: what it is, where it’s been, where it’s going and what it has to offer. Those issues are at the very core of this conference.

So let’s begin.

I think it is interesting that for many years, the role of commercial space transportation in our nation’s overall space program has gone largely unnoticed.

Well, it’s about to be noticed.

Welcome to the new world of commercial space transportation.

When it comes to the theme of this conference, “Igniting the Space Economy,” commercial space transportation is where the match meets the candle.

Commercial Space, a silent workhorse for so many of America’s space programs, is becoming a lot more visible, and it may have the opportunity to serve as a bright and shining light for the nation’s future spaceflight efforts.

The commercial sector has always been an integral part of our work in space; always there whenever a rocket left the pad. As a matter of fact, commercial providers go all the way back to America’s first space achievements. This audience is certainly familiar with the contributions of General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, North American, Martin Marietta, Rockwell International, Lockheed, and Boeing. But there have been many others.

Some of you may know that the Redstone Rocket, the core vehicle that launched America’s very first satellite, was built by Chrysler. But how many of you were aware that the original third stage motor for the Vanguard was built by a business called the Grand Central Rocket Company?  That motor put the first two Vanguard satellites into orbit.

Pick a program — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle — and there were commercial enterprises behind every one.

Every time one of those vehicles left the ground, it wasn’t just the federal government doing all the work. In most cases, one commercial company had built the candle and another one made the match. The industry has a solid record of distinction and accomplishment.

Even so, the fresh interest in commercial space transportation raises a very basic and legitimate question.

Is the commercial spaceflight industry we’ve depended upon for all these years the same one we are talking about today?

The answer is an emphatic “Yes” and “No.”

Let me put that answer into context, since many things have changed substantially when it comes to commercial space.

Fifty years ago, there was no actual “market” for space. Space was, in truth, a forum for dueling national agendas. At its best in those days, spaceflight was a contest between two nations, with each successful launch emphasizing the point that the country responsible was not only better than the other, but also a potential threat best left alone.

Today, space is much more of an international marketplace. It is a competitive arena, with developers and customers from many different nations and with systems operators ranging from government agencies to private entrepreneurs.

It seems to me that when we speak of commercial space today, we are really talking about two different kinds of participation by private industry. One involves building and selling products – rockets, or spacecraft, or various space-related systems or subsystems. The customer, frequently the government, comes up with a design, or at least issues a list of requirements or specifications that the desired systems need to meet, and interested parties in industry submit proposals, and if they are lucky, are granted contracts to develop and deliver products that can meet those specifications.

This type of relationship has epitomized many of our country’s space programs to date. And I suspect that it will continue to do so, to some degree, in the future. But I believe that the real promise for commercial space going forward lies in a completely different kind of relationship with the government – providing services.

Let’s talk for a minute about what that would look like.

Frankly, some people assume we are just talking about space tourism. And among those, some view it unkindly, wondering why, among other things, anyone would pay that kind of money to do it. Some even raise questions about that adventurous man from Great Britain coming to the United States to offer rides in his unusual new vehicle.

I can only assume they are thinking of Claude Grahame-White who came here from England in 1910 with his new airplane. He charged $500 for five minutes in the air and had dozens of takers. By the way, that $500 sum converted into 2008-year dollars would be about $213,000.

So a hundred years ago, a ride in a primitive airplane cost more than what it will cost initially to ride on one of the suborbital space vehicles currently being developed. And you will recall that a few years after people paid $500 for a ride in a plane the barnstormers were charging five.

The key point is that whether it you are talking $500 or $5, that was a commercial transaction, a fee for service. Of course, inviting as it is, space tourism is only one example of the kinds of services that the new commercial space transportation industry can provide. NASA has seen the potential benefits from this type of approach in its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, in which several companies have signed Space Act Agreements as part of an effort to demonstrate the capability to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. And in December of 2008, as part of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, NASA issued $3.5 billion worth of contracts to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation to provide just that type of service.

Other examples of services that could be contracted for in the future include carrying crew members to and from the International Space Station, conducting sub-orbital science missions, delivering propellants to an on-orbit refueling platform, or beaming down electricity from a constellation of solar power satellites.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a revolution. But we are definitely talking about a new approach, a new paradigm, something different than the traditional vendors producing custom-made hardware for the federal buyer.

In fact, the new commercial space transportation sector is a perfect example of the 21st Century marketplace at work.

It is a marketplace open to both traditional commercial providers and to the new entrepreneurs. It is an industry already making it possible to reach around the world to communicate with a loved one, or to bring a program to your TV screen live from Australia. The commercial spaceflight industry is a national security asset, and is now being counted on as a key component of NASA’s exploration efforts.

When it comes to space transportation, this is the time of the marketplace. If a traditional commercial space company chooses to offer suborbital flights to passengers, the licensing process is clear. If an entrepreneurial commercial space company wants to enter the satellite launch business, they know what they will have to do in the areas of safety and reliability.

And if either the traditional or the entrepreneurial commercial space companies choose to compete for point-to-point transportation through space, well, the field is wide open.

So, then. This is where we are right now, in the age of marketplace options.

Commercial space transportation is about to offer competing business models, selling products and offering services.

Either way, commercial space transportation is poised for expanded opportunities, and I have every confidence it will succeed.

Much is riding on the commercial spaceflight industry.

We will be looking at it very closely during the next two days. Our topics will range from “What is Space good for?” to future technologies, and from Spaceport Planning to dealing with mishaps. I’m looking forward to some heated discussions, some keen insights, and some fascinating perspectives.

So let’s get on with the show!

###