"NASA’s Direction – Right Plan for the Future?"
Dr. George C. Nield, Colorado Springs, Colorado
April 13, 2011

27th National Space Symposium


This week we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the very first human spaceflight.

It was on April 12, 1961 that Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth.

Since that time we have seen a number of impressive space achievements, including the Apollo moon landings, the development and operation of the Space Shuttle, the launch and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the construction of the International Space Station.

But today, we find ourselves in a very unfortunate and rather awkward situation. About 2½ months from now, after the Space Shuttle Atlantis completes its final mission, the United States will no longer have the capability to launch its astronauts into space.

Instead, for at least the next several years, we are going to have to pay the Russians around $62 million per seat and hitch a ride in a Soyuz capsule if we want to visit the International Space Station.

Not exactly something to celebrate.

Now, I’m not sure that today is the right time for us to debate the reasons why we find ourselves in the current situation. But perhaps it would be productive to focus on what we can do to extricate ourselves from this predicament.

It’s not really a question of starting from scratch. Since the nation already has at least thee different rockets that are flying today that would potentially be suitable for carrying crewmembers (specifically, the Atlas 5, the Delta IV, and the Falcon 9), all we really need is a spacecraft that would be capable of carrying a crew.

As it turns out, there are a number of American companies who have announced that they are ready, willing, and able to meet the challenge. They run the gamut from small, innovative, entrepreneurial companies to large, established aerospace firms with a long history of working on the nation’s space programs.

In terms of technical complexity, the task does not appear to be all that different from Project Gemini, which took a little over three years from program start until the first manned mission back in 1965. Knowing what we know now, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t beat that schedule today.

The funding requirements are also likely to be rather modest. The President’s 2012 budget request envisions spending $6.5 billion over five years to enable multiple companies to develop human spaceflight capabilities that could take our astronauts to and from the ISS. Spending less than that will likely lengthen the gap, meaning that we would have to continue to pay the Russians to fly our crewmembers over a longer period of time.

If NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program is successful, we would have the opportunity, for the first time in our history, for the nation to have more than one way to get people into space. The goal is to have multiple safe, reliable, and cost-effective systems, for conducting human spaceflights.

If we are able to do that, I think it would result in some significant advantages, not only because of the beneficial impact that competition tends to have on the cost of operations, but also because in the event of technical problems or a mishap that might result in a lengthy stand down for one system, we could use an alternate system to transport our astronauts back and forth to orbit. And that would mark a significant milestone in the development of our nation’s human spaceflight capabilities.

Calling on industry to provide the solution to our transportation needs to LEO has the added benefit of allowing NASA to focus on exploration – going where we’ve never gone before, and doing what we’ve never done before.

But regardless of what direction NASA decides to head, and what decisions that the Administration, or the Congress, make in the months ahead, the FAA is prepared to do what we can to ensure that those programs can be successful.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which I lead, has a two-fold statutory mission: first, to ensure public safety during commercial launch and reentry activities, and second, to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space transportation. Although we are a regulatory agency, we view our job as trying to enable safe and successful commercial space operations.

So to the extent that NASA decides to incorporate commercial launch providers in its plans, whether it’s delivering cargo to LEO, or providing transportation services for astronauts, the FAA is prepared to support that effort by carrying out our regulatory responsibilities to the best of our abilities in a fair and consistent manner.

This has been a challenging time for all of us, but we are very excited to have the opportunity to work with both NASA and the industry to help America regain her proper role as the world’s leader in human spaceflight operations.

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