"A Century of Progress in Spaceflight: At the Midpoint"
Dr. George C. Nield, Chicago, Illinois
May 27, 2010

National Space Society’s 29th Annual International Space Development Conference

Good morning.

I’m very pleased and honored to have the opportunity to kick off the International Space Development Conference this year.

A lot has happened in the world of commercial space transportation since we met in Orlando back in 2009.

A year ago, I began my remarks by saying that the commercial space transportation industry was determined to establish itself as the keystone supporting the future of both suborbital space and low-earth orbit.

A year’s worth of milestones – including the Augustine Commission Report, release of the Administration’s Budget Request, and much, much more – would suggest that construction is well underway.

I want to talk about that this morning, about where we’ve been and where we’re headed in space. But before I do, let me briefly set up a framework for the discussion.

A Century of Progress

On this day – May 27th – in 1933, the Century of Progress Exposition opened here in Chicago on the lake front where McCormick Place and the Adler Planetarium stand today. The Exposition was, in effect, a world’s fair, held right in the middle of the Great Depression, yet it was still able to attract nearly 49 million visitors.

The fair focused heavily on technological innovation. In fact, the 1933 exposition actually opened at night when the lights were switched on using solar power collected by telescope from the star, Arcturus.

An historian reports that the exhibits at the 1933 fair “drove home the message that cooperation between science, business, and government could pave the way to a better future.”

That, of course, is a message that would certainly apply to current discussions about the future of the United States in Space. And the name of the 1933 Exposition, “A Century of Progress,” may someday apply just as well to the history of human space flight.

We are, in fact, almost exactly at the midpoint in the first century of human space flight that began April 12, 1961 with the launch of Yuri Gagarin. That event set in motion a huge burst of energy and achievement, and took humanity outside the confines of our planet for the very first time.

So, halfway into our first Century of Progress in Space, what were the factors that shaped the first fifty years?  What forces will guide the next fifty?  How have things changed?  Where are we going?

Early Drivers: Geophysics and Geopolitics

Among the forces that led to America’s early ventures into space was, of course, the International Geophysical Year. As a part of that effort, the National Science Foundation publicly announced plans in the summer of 1955 for launching a satellite that, among other things, would help find out if the Earth’s climate was changing.

For the record, then, science was the official impetus behind our rather ambitious goal to launch a satellite into orbit.

Nevertheless, while the International Geophysical Year may have been the proximate cause taking us into space, geopolitics quickly became an even more compelling factor.

The Cold War had raised fears in both the United States and the Soviet Union. The quest for rocket preeminence had fueled the ambitions of both countries. A satellite launch was more than a scientific triumph. It translated into a matter of national security, a not-so-subtle expression of potential military power.

In that highly charged world of global politics, the publicly funded American space program was sustained in large part by the desire to achieve, impress, and perhaps intimidate the competition, while cautiously pulling back the curtains that were concealing the unknown.

Other Factors: Uncertainty and Risk

Of course, the space program was also driven by a fascination with both the uncertain and the downright dangerous.

As to the “uncertain,” our senior policy makers were somewhat wary about the capabilities of American launch vehicles.

Dr. James Killian, the president of MIT, was also the science advisor to President Eisenhower. On December 19, 1957, just a few weeks after Sputnik, Dr. Killian received a confidential memo from three prominent scientists, giving their views on the prospects for successfully launching an American satellite. Two vehicles were in the running, Vanguard and Jupiter-C.

The memo gave each vehicle no better than a 50-50 chance of success.

Clearly, there was no certainty in that forecast.

That leaves us with the “risk” side of the equation, where there was the matter of the questionable reliability of the launch vehicles slated to carry Americans into space. The first three models of the Atlas, the rocket that was eventually used to launch John Glenn into orbit, had an early failure rate of nearly 42 percent.

On the whole, what we had in the late 1950’s and right through the 1960’s was a space race that could be described as a fierce gathering of pressures, imposed by science, energized by national security, and encouraged by a public that was both proud and fearful at the same time.

With all that pressure, it should come as no surprise that a certain amount of risk taking was involved, pushing schedules, pressing for results, but not quite to the point of irresponsibility. In those intense days, the operative approach to rocket launches was not unlike the view of General Patton who said: “Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.”

In those days of uncertainty and risk from the rockets themselves, as well as perceived threats from abroad, we were, to be candid about it, if not rash, perhaps at least willing to rationalize a little.

And yet, for those of us who remember those times from our childhood, even success was often not completely fulfilling. To succeed was good, of course, but success coupled with winning the space race was the unacknowledged name of the game.

Ultimately, NASA’s people and its technology were equal to the challenges they faced, and the country produced a number of historic achievements in space. It was a time marked by novelty and breakthroughs; risk and daring; spectacular success, memorable failure, and sometimes great sadness. It was a tremendous, irresistible adventure.

It was the dawn of human spaceflight.

Future Drivers: Commercial

But what drives us today as we approach the midpoint – fifty years later – of a century of progress in space?

One thing that drives the current commercial effort goes straight back to the Chicago historian I quoted earlier about the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition:  “Cooperation between science, business, and government could pave the way to the future.”

What’s different today is the added emphasis on business.

Commercial builders have always been involved in America’s space program. They just haven’t ever been as visible as they are today. It is unfamiliar territory both for the industry and for the public. And it’s going to take some getting used to.

It’s especially true for the commercial newcomers, but all of these companies are driven by the need to prove themselves. Simply put, they recognize that the only way to legitimize their standing is to launch safely and succeed consistently.

A byproduct of that approach is caution, and caution generally translates into extra time. Don’t expect the private sector to gamble with the opportunity of a lifetime, especially when lives are at stake. If they need time, they’ll take it.

I remember back in the 60’s the United States used to take great pride in launching rockets in full public view, in sharp contrast to the secretive ways of the Soviet Union.

But if we were proud of our openness then, in modern America serious scrutiny is inescapable and judgment is immediate. So the commercial space transportation sector is not only more visible; it is watched more intently, which puts an even higher premium on getting it right.

It is a fact that for the first half of this century of progress in space, the overwhelming amount of activity was strictly federal – federal funding, federal launch sites, federal policy.

It is also a fact that an increased commercial role is a chance to refresh the space effort with different thinking and different approaches. For some reason, there are those who say that increasing the commercial role amounts to somehow “diluting the spaceflight gene pool.” 

I beg to differ. The commercial sector will add to our prospects in space, help us get better, and help us do more.

Future Driver Two: Profit

Another key driver of spaceflight in the second half of this century of progress will be profit.

NASA didn’t have to worry about that. Through both success and failure, public funding, though variable, was regularly available. These days on the commercial side of the effort, you either find a way to make money or you find a way home.

Even good friends of mine have asked me if I think the commercial sector can earn a profit. Let me put it this way. All my life I’ve heard about the genius of private enterprise, and the fact that industry is the economic backbone of America.

I have no reason to believe that’s about to change in space.

It is important to remember that commercial space transportation is a business of multiple sectors. It includes both the long-established, traditional aerospace companies and some more recently established entities, each of which is hoping to offer low-earth orbit taxi and delivery services, plus several entrepreneurial companies that are planning to carry private citizens on sub-orbital flights. In other words, there are not only multiple commercial sectors; there are also both multiple providers and multiple kinds of customers.

What else will influence the nature of spaceflight in the next half century?

Personal Fervor and Safety

I’ll mention just two more items, and both of them are already visible in the first half century of progress in space.

One of them I would call personal fervor.

I had the opportunity to work for a number of years at the NASA Johnson Space Center. The people I interacted with there were devoted to excellence and had a passion for spaceflight. I also had the chance to meet several NASA pioneers while I was there, people who were “present at the creation.”  They were devoted to excellence and had a passion for spaceflight.

I see that same attitude and dedication among the emerging commercial space workers. Many of them come to this effort directly from universities, a pattern established in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when freshly-minted college graduates went straight from the campus to the console and flourished. Other commercial space workers come from previous employment at NASA. Still others are veterans of our national security space programs.

What they have in common is that quality of personal fervor, the single-minded belief that what they are doing is important, and that doing it the right way is the only way to do it.

Newcomer or veteran, all these people are direct beneficiaries of the NASA example. Without any hint of disrespect, I believe it is safe to say that today’s commercial space workers are better prepared and better trained than their NASA counterparts were in the early 1960’s. This new generation has the benefit of insights and experience that were obviously unavailable 50 years ago. And so much of that learning and experience is the direct result of NASA’s pioneering and ongoing work.

Let me mention just one more guide star for our future days in space.


I could talk about safety at length, but I won’t, not today. But it is vital. We have already experienced the painful, difficult lesson that spaceflight is risky, intolerant of error and ignorance, and inevitably unforgiving.

That’s why safety has to be an integral part of our spaceflight culture, whether we work in engineering, in management, or in operations. We can’t go anywhere without it. And if we don’t have it, we have nothing at all.

Changing Space

Now it is true that as we approach the second half of the Century of Progress in Space, we have a lot of competition for the public’s attention.

There is no sense denying it. As a national matter, the public does not appear to be as captivated and dazzled by spaceflight as it was when people my age were young. Back then, the space program, at least in living rooms around the country, was exciting entertainment.

That has changed. Today, relevance matters. Yet, even in the “entertainment and excitement” days, relevance apparently mattered to some. In the high glamour times, right after President Kennedy announced that we were going to the Moon; a Gallup Poll showed that 58 percent of those questioned opposed the idea.

So let me share an assessment with you that, if not wildly exciting, is still deeply reassuring.

Across the years, respect for and appreciation of spaceflight are quietly taking hold in this country. You can see it in the ongoing debates about our country’s future in space. At the continued Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill. On the television news and in the blogs. And in the opinion pages of our local newspapers. People are starting to realize that they care about space.

Spaceflight has not only made history. It has brought us prestige. It has not only created heroes. It has brought us instant communications and real-time information from all around the world. It has not only made us proud. It has made us aware that spaceflight is important enough and useful enough and promising enough to support and sustain.

Spaceflight has proven itself relevant, and more and more people are beginning to understand that, and to want more of it.

Fifty More

So, yes, as this Century of Progress in Space crosses the midpoint, space is changing.

NASA is acquiring a more visible ally in the form of commercial space operations. People who are not trained scientists or test pilots will soon be able to buy a ticket and ride a rocket to the edge of space. As spaceflight comes closer to the public, I fully expect them to give it an even closer look, knowing that the adventure is more accessible and that the bill will not be paid exclusively from the national treasury.

The fact is that after 50 years of progress, we know a great deal about spaceflight. But compared to what there is to know, we have a whole lot to learn and a lot to gain.

Let me say just one more thing as I close.

A much favored son of this State of Illinois, Carl Sandburg, once wrote that “there is nothing in the world, only an ocean of tomorrows, a sky of tomorrows.”

One could certainly dismiss that observation as just poetry and romance. No serious person would question the fact that the world is loaded with countless wonders. But Sandburg was certainly right about the “sky of tomorrows.”  We’ve had nearly fifty years of those in spaceflight, discovering what tomorrow can do for us and how we can benefit from it.

I wonder how much we can do with fifty more years of tomorrows in Space?  I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to find out.

Thank you very much.