"Commercial Space Transportation: This Feels Like a Tipping Point"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, DC
February 9, 2011

14th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference

Welcome to the fourteenth annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference.

If you’ve had a chance to look over the agenda, you know that we’ve got an outstanding collection of presentations on the schedule, with top-notch speakers from government, industry, and academia, and great topics ranging from new space technologies, to orbital and suborbital transportation systems, to business risks in human spaceflight.  We’ve also tried to allow plenty of time for interaction, with luncheons, an evening reception, and several networking coffee breaks strategically placed throughout the event.  Breaking down the stovepipes and other communications barriers is one of the most important benefits of this type of conference, so please take advantage of the opportunity to reach out and introduce yourself to some of the other attendees while you’re here.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the very first human space flight.  It was on April 12, 1961 that Yuri Gagarin, a 27-year old Soviet Air Force pilot, became the first person to truly slip the surly bonds of earth and circumnavigate the globe, far above the sensible atmosphere.  His flight lasted just an hour and 48 minutes, but its significance reverberated well beyond the roar at the launch pad and ignited a sequence of actions and reactions that were to become a major part of the space race.

The very next month, on May 5, 1961, the United States sent Alan Shepard on a 15-minute suborbital mission that demonstrated our intent to keep pace in this high-stakes technological competition.

Just 3 weeks later, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy, while addressing a joint session of Congress, declared that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”  That speech served as the formal unveiling of the Apollo program, one of the most ambitious, and most expensive government programs ever undertaken.  It was an exciting time.  But there were plenty of challenges and frustrating developments along the way.

I just finished reading John Logsdon’s new book on the subject, titled John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.  It’s an excellent work, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.  It contains a whole series of little-known but interesting tidbits about how that Presidential initiative became part of the nation’s space policy and then was successfully accomplished.  For those of you who are interested in space history and space policy development, I’d strongly recommend you pick up a copy.

Last weekend, as I thought about what I had read, and how those events of 50 years ago compare with what we are seeing in the space arena today, I was struck by two different observations.  First, the process of how we formulate and then carry out the nation’s space program has not changed all that much over the years.  Even in those heady times, we still had interagency budget battles and turf wars, with a sprinkling of pork-barrel politics thrown in for good measure.  People asked, “Did we really need a Space Council, and what was its proper role?”  There were debates about the benefits of international cooperation, arguments about the need for a heavy-lift booster, and concerns about how much the program would cost.  Sound familiar?  I guess the more things change around here, the more they stay the same.

My second observation was the recognition that 50 years ago, all of the inputs about potential spinoffs and priorities, all of the programmatic decisions, and most, if not all, of the necessary funding, both for research and development, and for vehicle operations, came from the federal government.  In those days, other than serving as support contractors, industry really didn’t have a seat at the table.

My sense is, all of that is about to change.  Big time.  In low-Earth orbit and in suborbital space, the government will still be an important player, but more and more, it will be as a purchaser of services, not as a developer or as an operator.

The other night, in his State of the Union address, the President talked about this being our generation’s Sputnik moment.  Now in that particular section of the speech, he was talking in general terms, about the nation’s need for research and development spending, and the importance of innovation.  But I think the case can be made that we are indeed facing a critical juncture in our nation’s space program, and that we need to decide how we want to respond.

As the Augustine Report noted in October 2009, “Commercial services to deliver crew to low-Earth orbit are within reach.  While this presents some risk, it could provide an earlier capability at lower initial and lifecycle costs than government could achieve.”

The new National Space Policy, which was published in June of 2010, states that “To promote a robust domestic commercial space industry, departments and agencies shall: Purchase and use commercial space capabilities and services to the maximum practical extent…”

And in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, signed by the President back in October, “Congress reaffirms that NASA should make use of United Statescommercially provided ISS crew transfer and crew rescue services to the maximum extent practicable.”

Now it’s one thing to agree on a policy here inWashington, and it’s quite another to actually deliver out at the launch pad.  What kind of progress is being made in these areas outside of the beltway?

Well, quite a bit actually.  It seems to me that there are really two different segments of the commercial space transportation industry that are in the process of coming to life almost simultaneously: the delivery of cargo and crew members to low-Earth orbit, and the development and operation of suborbital reusable launch vehicles, both for science missions, and for space tourism.

When it comes to transportation to LEO, one of the key questions has to do with the size of the market.  In the FY2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress directed NASA, in coordination with the FAA, to conduct an assessment of the potential non-Government market for commercially-developed crew and cargo transportation systems and capabilities.  That study is already underway, and the results should be available later this spring.  Judging from what several of the developers have been saying in the press, and we’ll hear from several of them first-hand during the conference, there is indeed a market, and they are anxious to have a chance to compete for the business.

In the suborbital segment, there are several different developers designing, building, and testing hardware right now.  Several hundred people have already put down tens of millions of dollars in deposits, eager to be at the front of the line once those vehicles start flying commercially.  And the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference is anticipating a huge turnout of scientists and experimenters when they meet in Orlando later this month.  So I’m pretty bullish about the suborbital market.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”  When it comes to commercial space, I’m not sure that we’re at the tipping point today, but we’re getting tantalizingly close.

Think about what that will be like.  When the number of launches that occur each year will be based, not on the size of a Congressional appropriation or the decisions of a government Administrator, but on the number of sovereign clients that have signed up to lease space on a commercial space station, the number of scientists who want to fly with their experiments on a suborbital test flight, or the number of spaceflight participants who have bought a ticket for the ride of a lifetime.

When we get to that point, and I hope it isn’t too far in the future, the government will be just one more customer, buying the transportation services it needs for low-Earth orbit or suborbital space missions.

So what does the government need to do today, in order to turn that vision of the future into a reality?

Well, as the government regulator, the FAA needs to be open to innovative approaches and new ways of doing business.  We need to be responsive to the needs of industry, while still ensuring public safety.

NASA has a lot of technical expertise and experience to share, and the FAA certainly plans to partner with them wherever we can. 

We do need to be careful, though.  Because as the government decides on the appropriate combination of insight and oversight that it intends to use, there will be a strong temptation to roll up our sleeves and either formally or informally try to influence how industry designs and operates its new systems.  And that could be a problem.  It will be very important for us to find the right balance.  Too little government “help,” and industry may end up having to re-learn lessons that NASA and the military learned long ago.  Too much government “help” and all of those business cases will likely not close, meaning that the commercial markets will dry up.  In either extreme, everyone loses.

Our goal then, is to see if we can find the sweet spot.  Working together, I am confident that we can make some amazing things happen.

Thanks again for being here today, and I hope you enjoy the conference!