"Primed for Success, Committed to Safety”"
J. Randolph Babbitt, Washington, DC
May 11, 2011
Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee
Thank you, George (Nield).
Fifty years ago this spring, a 27-year-old Soviet Air Force Pilot named Yuri Gagarin strapped himself into a tiny capsule perched on top of a rocket. Minutes later, he became the first human to leave the earth’s atmosphere. A few weeks after that, Alan Shepard followed with a 15-minute suborbital mission.
And then on May 25, 1961 – almost exactly 50 years ago – President Kennedy 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.”
Kennedy’s speech to Congress that day formally launched the Apollo program, which was one of the most ambitious, and also one of the most expensive, government programs ever undertaken.
There are some interesting parallels between the development of commercial air transportation and commercial space transportation. One of them is how the shift from government-funded to private sector development began to accelerate right at the 50-year mark. The Wright Brothers flew in 1903 and it was in the 1950s that private sector-led commercial development really began to take off. Literally.
I think we are seeing the same kind of trajectory in space transportation. The first 50 years were primarily a government-led operation. All the programmatic decisions, and most, if not all, the necessary funding for research and development, and for vehicle operations, came from the federal government.
But that’s changing, and we see the change in a number of ways.
Policy is one of them. The National Space Policy of 2010 states that in order “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.”
The same point turns up in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, signed last October: “Congress reaffirms that NASA should make use of United States commercially provided ISS crew transfer and crew rescue services to the maximum extent practicable.”
Not too far in the future, the federal government will cease to be a space developer or operator. Instead, government will be a customer. And as a customer, it will buy the transportation services it needs for low-Earth orbit or suborbital space missions.
The market, not government, will determine the number of launches every year. It seems to me that there are two different segments of the commercial space transportation industry coming to life right now. One is for the delivery of cargo and crew members to low-Earth orbit. The other is for the development and operation of suborbital reusable launch vehicles, both for science missions, and for space tourism. So, commercial space will serve sovereign clients who lease space on a commercial space station. It will carry scientists who need to fly with their experiments. And it will serve people who have bought tickets to be spaceflight participants on the ride of a lifetime.
That’s a big change, and change brings challenges. One of the challenges from the government-to-private sector shift is the need to develop strong partnerships with other government agencies – and especially with NASA. It’s a partnership with a lot of potential. In fact, I’d call it essential. When it comes to technical expertise and experience in space operations, nobody knows more than NASA.
The FAA’s role is also critical – ensuring safety. We’ve set the safety bar very high and the commercial air transportation industry has met it. We still have room for improvement and I am confident everyone here is ready and willing to do the work.
The FAA wrote the book on regulating for safety, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons in the century since the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk. We know about setting safety standards, issuing licenses and permits based on those standards, regulating airspace, and establishing the inspection and oversight programs we need to ensure continued operational safety.
The same will be true for commercial space safety. Our approach to commercial space is to develop regulations that promote safety without becoming a hurdle between you and what commercial space can and will become. The standard we have set for the FAA, starting with the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, is to be fair, to be reasonable, and to listen. And that's important. We want to be facilitators who help make it happen – safely.
And we are making progress – just look at some of the activity in the past year. Last year, there were four licensed launches. That brings the overall total to over 200, and they all happened without any fatalities, serious injuries or property damage to the public. The launch site operator license we issued to Cecil Field in Jacksonville gives America its eighth spaceport.
That leads me to another challenge – the speed of change. You know that government doesn’t usually move very fast and the private sector moves at lightening speed.
The challenge is to find ways to accommodate speed and enable growth, but without sacrificing safety. The FAA is open to innovative approaches and new ways of doing business so we can be responsive to the needs of industry, but we owe it to everyone to do that while still ensuring public safety.
To meet that challenge, we need groups like COMSTAC. COMSTAC and other advisory groups add to our practical knowledge and make recommendations based on real-world experience. And COMSTAC can help with research – a role that we also expect the FAA’s Tech Center to play as commercial space develops and evolves. There’s a lot to learn before we can write rules, or even guidelines, for commercial human space transportation. You’ll hear more on that topic today, and how the Centers of Excellence leverage investments with academia and the private sector to make the most of our money.
Another tool – one coming online just as the commercial space sector is accelerating – is the Safety Management System, or SMS. I expect we will rely very heavily on SMS to help us manage and monitor the orbital environment. That’s critical for safe operations, for industry growth, and also for national security.
The FAA will work with other agencies and with industry to accommodate and facilitate growth in commercial space – but we will continue to put safety first. Period.
Let me close with an observation and a hope. At its own fifty-year mark, commercial air transportation was something like commercial spaceflight is today: a costly, out-of-the-ordinary activity available to the privileged few. The infrastructure wasn’t there, and we were just learning to do the kind of coordination that we take for granted today.
Today’s commercial space launches require involvement from a lot of people in a lot of different organizations. Everything stops to accommodate a commercial space launch.
That will change. I am confident that as this industry grows, and as our government/industry partnerships develop to support it, we will be seeing a lot of exciting developments in the next decade – never mind the next quarter-century.
Thank you for partnering with us to help achieve that goal, and for being here today.