"Questions and Answers About Commercial Spaceflight"
Dr. George C. Nield, Boulder, Colorado
February 18, 2010

Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference


This has been quite a month for commercial space transportation.

Two weeks ago, as you know, it was featured prominently in the President’s budget roll-out.

Last week, despite weather more suited to Colorado than to Washington, D.C, the FAA held its annual commercial space transportation conference. I think it’s fair to say that it was a real eye-opener, even for devoted fans of commercial space.

And earlier this week, I had a chance to speak to the FAA’s international office about what’s been going on in commercial spaceflight, and what it will mean for the country and for the rest of the world.

All of this comes on the heels of Masten Space Systems winning the Lunar Lander Challenge; the rollout of Virgin Galactic Space Ship Enterprise; a congressional hearing on commercial space transportation by the House Aviation Subcommittee; and congressional renewal of our liability risk-sharing regime, sometimes referred to as “indemnification.”

Talk about being under the spotlight!  It’s almost enough to make one want to start singing the “Neon Lights are Bright on Broadway.”

The fact is it’s been extremely encouraging to read and to hear the positive reaction to the more visible role being accorded commercial spaceflight.

On the other hand I have to candidly admit I’m a little troubled by another brand of reaction that is not only less enthusiastic, but also a whole lot more intense.

I’ve read some comments that express disappointment, indignation, disdain, and even ridicule about commercial space transportation. Now, I certainly respect the willingness of people to add their voices to the conversation regardless of the side they take. But although the critics seem small in number, their vehemence surprises me.

It’s a little like they are treating commercial spaceflight as the youngster who just got a learner’s permit and is assigned to drive the grandparents cross country.

The truth is we have been issuing licenses to commercial launch operators for a quarter of a century, with 200 licensed launches now on the books. Private industry has been a key player in the nation’s space program since the days of Jupiter C. Government and industry have always worked together on space, with specific roles and responsibilities figured out for each program. So I don’t see the value in bashing one of the partners, just because the relationship going forward may be a little different that it’s been in the past.

What we’re talking about here is not a rookie in the business or a Johnny-Come-Lately in the national policy. The Commercial Space Launch Act took effect in 1984. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which governs commercial human spaceflight, was approved back in 2004.

Commercial space transportation has already generated an extensive, successful, and impressive record.

Of course, some will argue, hold it, there, George, just a minute. The commercial spaceflight that’s helped to haul payloads and astronauts into orbit these past fifty years isn’t the same commercial space industry we’re talking about today.

Well, some of it is. And some of it’s new. Some operators have vast experience at building just what the government ordered. Some of the newcomers are doing that, too, while also offering their own brand of hardware and services in the open marketplace.

That’s a difference of sorts, and change can make people a little uneasy.

I understand that. We all do. But while it’s entirely legitimate to raise questions, it doesn’t do America’s future in space any good at all to raise fears in what might be interpreted as an effort to undermine an industry that has served the nation well and is now prepared to expand its contribution.

Let me go right to the center of it.

Some people are raising questions about safety.

That’s certainly a great subject to focus on. In fact, it’s the top priority of the office I head, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Let me share with you just a little of what I said about safety before the House Aviation Subcommittee last December.

First, much as I wish it were, safety is not an absolute. Climbing aboard a rocket carries with it the potential for unfavorable results. So safety must override assumptions, shortcuts and the potentially false and dangerous sense that “what has always worked before is bound to work again.”  Safety is a mindset, a professional tension where all the people involved in providing a rocket trip are constantly on alert, determined to get it right this time, next time, all the time.

Second, even at that high order of readiness, safety does not, nor can it ever, immunize anyone against unforeseen harm. Misfortune will always be an uninvited possibility whenever a rocket launches. At the FAA, we never forget that. It is a compelling fact that reinforces our commitment to safety, and leads us to check and recheck, and if necessary, even re-think what we do and how we do it.

So there it is. Rockets are dangerous. The FAA knows it. The industry knows it. That’s why the people involved in commercial spaceflight are dedicated to doing everything possible to make spaceflight as safe as humans can make it.

That’s our promise. That’s our mission. And because it isn’t easy, here’s some history to remind you how tough the mission is.

Let’s start with the X-planes. NASA figures show that between 1946 and 1995, in experimental vehicles ranging from the X-1 to the X-31A, there were 2,110 flights. That’s roughly 43 flights a year, although some years had many and others had few. Those flights produced 27 accidents and four fatalities. It is a hard fact that you will not find perfection in work like this.

To underscore that fact, let me talk a minute about the famous century series. These are production military aircraft like the F-100 Super Sabre, the F-101 Voodoo, the F-102 Delta Dagger, the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief, and the F-106 Delta Dart, all of which were built and flown extensively from the 1950s through the 1970s.

The F-100 suffered 471 accidents. The F-104 Starfighter had 196, and the F-102 Delta Dagger wasn’t far behind. In the 1960s, the German Luftwaffe had 917 Starfighters, of which 270 crashed, killing 110 pilots.

The vehicles that private citizens will fly on suborbital trips into space will not push the envelope the way these planes or the X-15 did. But the spacecraft designed for commercial human spaceflight will likely share a closer kinship with some of those temperamental high-performance vehicles than with a regional commercial jet.

Congress had both history and high performance in mind when it passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. The legislation said right up front:  “Spaceflight is inherently risky and the future of the commercial human spaceflight industry will depend on its ability to continually improve its safety performance.”

So, yes, this is risky. Travel is risky. All of it. In 2007, in just that one year, more than 41,000 Americans died on our highways; over 800 died in rail mishaps; nearly 700 people lost their lives in boating accidents; and nearly 500 people died in general aviation accidents.

No one can say that the future of commercial space transportation will be without loss. It’s true that no one died onboard a Mercury or Gemini capsule. But Apollo had a fatal accident, as did the X-15. And there have been two fatal accidents on the Space Shuttle.

I suppose someone might say, George, it sounds like you’re trying to fend off criticism of this effort by telling us in advance that there will be some bad days. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that we will do everything we can to minimize those days. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s helpful for people to forecast bad days as a way of casting shadows on the ability of commercial spaceflight to help advance the fortunes of America’s space program.

What I wanted to do this morning was to bring some perspective to commercial space transportation. Is it risky?  Yes it is. It’s been risky for more than 50 years. How about the new kinds of commercial space transportation, like suborbital space tourism and suborbital science flights, are they risky?  Yes they are. Congress knew that from the start and got ahead of the curve by directing the FAA to develop regulations for commercial human spaceflight, and we have done that.

The risk will be with us, as it has been from the start. And the determination to overcome it is with us … as it will be in the future.

This is a crucial time for commercial space transportation. Every policy maker, critic, and doubter, along with every enthusiast, supporter, and hopeful passenger, should ask every question they have, and raise every issue they are concerned about. But I would hope it could be done constructively, with the single objective of doing the best job we can with the best tools we have.

No question about it, times are changing. Many years ago, the longshoreman philosopher, Eric Hoffer, wrote a book about times like these, times in transition. The book was about shifting movements in society. And the book was called, The Ordeal of Change.

I suppose where we are right now in America’s space program is at a cross roads where we can decide to make change an ordeal, or we can make it a better deal.

For my part, I see this time as a time of opportunity, for the country to advance, to try new approaches, to give more people the ability to answer questions, fulfill ambitions, and experience new things.

I believe that America’s space program is on the way to recreating its original greatness and its power to inspire future generations.

So let’s get on with it!

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