"Answering the Call"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, D.C.
May 19, 2010

Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee Meeting


Good morning, and welcome to all of you.

Even though our previous COMSTAC meeting was only a few months ago, so much has happened since we last got together that it feels like it has been a lot longer.

Whether it’s launches, flight tests, regulatory activity, policy discussions, or progress on new initiatives, it’s been a very busy time.

As you know, our nation’s future direction in space is getting a lot of attention right now on Capitol Hill and in the media, and the capabilities and potential of commercial space transportation has been right in the center of it all.

One thing’s for sure — the industry’s performance in the safety arena continues to be outstanding. 201 FAA-licensed launches without loss of life, serious injury, or major property damage is a pretty impressive record.

Over the decades, industry has built a proud record of service to the nation. And now, regardless of how the final funding decisions turn out in Congress concerning the President’s proposed way ahead, it seems clear that in the future, NASA will be placing even more reliance on industry than it has in the past.

NASA has quite a reputation to uphold, with history in its portfolio and greatness in its plans. If someone were to ask me for a brief description of the NASA essence, I’d show them pictures of a Saturn V liftoff, or a Space Shuttle touchdown, or maybe some of the recent photographs from the Hubble telescope, with all their mystery and majesty. And then I would tell them about some of the great people who have worked at NASA over the years — Max Faget, John Young, Gene Kranz, Charlie Bolden, and many more.

That’s the essence of NASA. The people, the machines, the courage, and the leadership combining in dazzling ways to stretch us all as individuals and help bring us all together as a nation.

Those of us at the FAA and in industry understand very clearly how much we can learn and grow from our partnership with NASA, and how much we can gain from the leadership of Charlie Bolden and his team.

It’s a terrific opportunity. But I think it’s important to recognize that while parts of our future work will be tied inextricably to NASA and its programs, other activities may be completely separate.

Parts of the commercial spaceflight industry will soon be hauling cargo and eventually carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. At the same time, other commercial entrepreneurs are going to be broadening access to space for private citizens, with entirely different kinds of vehicles, and engaging in Space Tourism or scientific research for business-related purposes.

As a regulator, the FAA will be involved in both of these efforts.

Now, it’s true that here in the spring of 2010, there’s been an “animated discussion” about the future direction of America in space. Some of that conversation has been a little rough. But after the bruises fade and the stitches come out, and the bones mend, I like to think that what it will all add up to is that people in the United States really do care deeply about the future of spaceflight and they’re enthusiastic about deciding what comes next.

So if there’s been a little bit of tension in the air, you can be sure it will pass, just as it has come and gone before. In fact, in that regard, let me share an historical anecdote.

Once upon a time, there was an outspoken member of Congress who didn’t care all that much for the New Deal. His name was Bruce Barton and, like FDR, he was a New Yorker.

During the 1940 election campaign, President Roosevelt turned Mr. Barton into something of a celebrity. He did it in a memorable speech in which FDR lyrically, and with derision, referred to “Martin, Barton, and Fish.” They were three members of Congress from the opposite party with whom he did not agree, and for whom he did not have a warm spot in his heart. FDR used the names “Martin, Barton, and Fish” a lot in the waning days of the campaign. People loved it and audiences turned the names into something like a chant.

What does this have to do with spaceflight?  Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

It turns out that Mr. Barton gained his greatest fame for something entirely aside from party or politics. He was also a well-known and widely quoted author and advertising executive. Some eighty years ago he came up with a piece of wisdom that applies right now to our future in spaceflight.

He put it this way.

“When you are through changing,” he said, “you are through.”

I think it is safe to say that with respect to America’s future in space, we are most definitely not through.

America’s work in space has never stopped changing. It’s changing visibly right now, evolving, expanding, improving, and making new beginnings. And if there’s any doubt about that, look at what’s happened in commercial space transportation since last October 29th.

In November, an Atlas V carried an IntelSat spacecraft into orbit. Then in March, a Delta IV successfully launched the GOES-P weather satellite. As I mentioned earlier, that makes a total of 201 launches that have been licensed by the FAA.

On December 7, SpaceShipTwo had its official rollout ceremony out in California. A few months later, the VSS Enterprise flew its first “captive/carry” mission under its WhiteKnightTwo mothership. Its second captive flight was successfully completed on Sunday.

Last November, with Administrator Bolden in attendance, NASA and the X Prize Foundation awarded Masten Space Systems a $1 million prize for capturing first place in the Lunar Lander Challenge competition. Armadillo Aerospace received $500,000 for second place.

December saw Congress approve a three-year extension of what is often referred to as the “indemnification” provision of our liability/risk-sharing regime.

February was quite a month. The FAA and AIAA teamed up to host the Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in weather borrowed from the Arctic Circle. The conference turned out to be a great success, especially coming on the heels of the President’s February 1 budget announcement that highlighted the value of commercial space transportation.

Also in February, in Boulder, Colorado, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver announced NASA’s plan to provide $75 million in funding over the next 5 years for the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has also had a rather hectic few months.

In December, I testified before the House Transportation Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee. Then in March, I was a member of a panel called to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Science and Space Subcommittee.

In January, AST issued a spaceport operator’s license for Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida, the eighth such license that we have granted.

Just last month, on April 7th, AST issued the first-ever safety approval for a Spaceflight Training System. It was presented to NASTAR, the National Aerospace Training and Research Center, for a combination centrifuge and simulator system that is able to duplicate the acceleration profile that a person would experience during suborbital flights of SpaceShipTwo and similar vehicles.

In addition, during the past few months we have made a lot of progress on our new Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. The idea here is to forge a union of public sector, private sector, and academic institutions to create a world-class consortium to work on commercial space transportation challenges and opportunities. Randy Babbitt, our FAA Administrator, approved the creation of the Center back in August, along with a funding level of $1 million per year for 10 years; we held public meetings in February; the final solicitation was issued in March, and proposals were due earlier this month. We hope to make a selection by early June, so that we can have things up and operating in time for the fall semester. As you can imagine, we are very pleased to be leading this particular initiative.

Another new development has to do with Spaceport grants. As you may know, the FAA gives out about $3.5 billion in Airport Improvement Grants every year, and that money is extremely important for developing and maintaining our nation’s transportation infrastructure. Given that we now have a number of spaceports coming on line, back in 1994 Congress authorized a Space Transportation Infrastructure Matching Grants program, but no funds were ever appropriated until now. This year, Congress appropriated $500,000 for a Commercial Space Transportation Grant Program for FY 2010. The program was announced in the Federal Register on May 4, with grant applications due on July 6. Although the total amount of funding is rather limited, it is our hope that if the funds are spent wisely, and if there is sufficient interest in the community, the program could be expanded in future years.

And one more thing. This year I was appointed to NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, something I’m very excited about and honored to be part of. It represents one more small but practical example of the value of interagency partnerships and professional communication, as our space agenda unfolds.

So there you have an overview of the last six months in commercial space transportation. I think the record speaks for itself, but I’ve only given the captions beneath the pictures. The stories themselves are even more interesting and packed with promise.

But around here, we’re not just focused on the past; we’re also constantly thinking about the future; about things we can do to make things better in commercial space. So, given that this is the commercial space transportation advisory committee, I’d really appreciate your feedback and advice, either as individuals, as professional colleagues, or as a committee, on a couple of other ideas that we have been kicking around.

Idea Number 1: I don’t know how many of you have seen the memorandum that OMB sent out to all government Departments and Agencies back on March 8, but it notes that it is now Administration policy to use prizes and challenges to increase innovation and the accomplishment of agency missions. So we have come up with what we think is an interesting prize idea.

We know that the nation already has several large, but rather expensive rockets to carry payloads into orbit, with others currently under development. We also know that several companies are in the process of developing suborbital reusable launch vehicles, for space tourism or other purposes. However, we still don’t have a way to quickly and inexpensively launch small satellites into orbit.

So how about this idea:  The federal government could establish a Low-Cost Access to Space Prize for the first non-governmental team to develop and demonstrate the ability to launch a 1 kg CubeSat into orbit, using a system with at least one reusable rocket-powered stage. Such a system could benefit NASA, DoD, industry, and academia, and help to fill in the gap between our existing orbital systems and the proposed suborbital ones.

Idea Number 2:  Just about every space-related conference or working group I go to these days includes expressions of concern about the diminishing size or quality of the aerospace workforce, and the lack of emphasis on STEM education in our schools. We’re all doing what we can in this area. NASA and many aerospace companies give out scholarships, and I’ve already told you about our Commercial Space Transportation Center of Excellence. But if we’re going to succeed in meeting this challenge, we’re going to have to make sure we have a sufficient number of kids at the beginning of the educational pipeline who are as excited about space as you and I are.

Back in the 1980s, NASA’s Teacher in Space Program was extremely successful in engaging students and teachers in STEM-related subjects. However, the program was put on hold, and eventually cancelled, after the Challenger accident. With the advent of suborbital space tourism operations, the potential exists for a much less expensive, much less hazardous program, which could involve many more teachers. Specific activities in a potential Spaceflight Training Education Program could include classroom training, altitude chamber runs, simulator experience, parabolic aircraft flights, and eventually, a flight on a suborbital reusable launch vehicle. At $200,000 per seat, a $10 million program would enable 50 teachers, one from every state, to participate. Just think for a moment about how many kids could be inspired by a teacher who has been through that kind of experience and then comes back into the classroom to talk about it!

Those are just a couple of the potential new initiatives that we are looking at going forward, and we would appreciate your thoughts on these ideas, or any others that you might want to offer.

At this point, it’s been just a little more than a month since the President gathered people together in Florida, from throughout the spaceflight industry, and spoke to us about America’s future in space. It is a future riding in many important ways on commercial space transportation.

What we have today is an opportunity to widen access to space where business can serve better; where more people can fly; NASA can move forward; and the nation can reemphasize its ambitions for space leadership.

I believe this is a time for optimism, for determination, and for common purpose.

Whatever final guidance ultimately emerges from our elected leadership, we must do the work ahead as well as we can and as safely as possible to ensure that the United States remains the pacesetter in space transportation.

So let me close this morning by saying this directly to our COMSTAC members. The questions you ask and the judgments you make; the experience you bring; the work you do; and the vision you offer are under greater scrutiny than ever before.

But these are also the same assets that are more valued and even more necessary than ever before.

As we stand here at the doorway of a new day in space, let me say to all of you, thank you for your service, even as I ask you again for your help.

Thank you very much.

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