"An Aerospace Giant"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, DC
May 11, 2011

Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee


Thanks, Will [Trafton], and good morning everyone.

Those of you who have known me for a while would probably not be surprised to hear that I enjoy learning about aerospace history – both the people and the events that have helped to shape our nation’s aviation and space capabilities. As it turns out, today marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of Theodore von Karman, considered by many to be the father of modern aerospace science. Von Karman was born on May 11, 1881, in Budapest, Hungary. As a professor, he began travelling extensively, giving lectures and consulting for industry. In 1926 he made his first visit to the United States to provide advice on the formation of the California Institute of Technology Aeronautical Lab, which was supported by the Douglas Aircraft Company. In 1930, he returned to the States to serve as the school’s leader. A few years later, he directed a group of students investigating various rocket propulsion applications, including the use of rockets to provide increased performance for aircraft during takeoff. The project became known as JATO (for Jet Assisted Takeoff rockets), and resulted in the formation of the Aerojet company.

In 1944, Von Karman became the cofounder of what is now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and began work on America’s first long-range missile and space exploration research program. He also served as Chairman of what later became the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. General Arnold, one of our senior military leaders at the time, told him, “You know, we’ve been winning this war by brute force and mass production and I don’t like it. Maybe next time we won’t be able to produce as fast and we’ll get snowed under. I want you people to look ahead 20 years in aviation and tell us where we’re going and how we are going to get there.” In response to those marching orders and the planning effort that ensued, the nation undertook a robust research program, resulting in a number of breakthrough technologies. Some of the key technologies identified in their 1945 report, entitled “Where We Stand,” included supersonic flight, ICBMs, nuclear warheads, and surface-to-air missiles.

As I think about where we stand today, about two months away from the retirement of the Space Shuttle, and recognizing that it may be several years before another U.S. rocket is able to carry our astronauts into orbit, it occurs to me that we desperately need a modern-day von Karman, who can look ahead 20 years and tell us what our future in space will be like. Someone who can argue convincingly for the benefits of research and development, and who can figure out how to harness those discoveries in ways that will allow the solution of real-world problems and the growth of new industries.

Now we may never find another von Karman, but we are always looking for well-qualified, highly motivated individuals who are interested in joining the AST team. Our most recent hire, Pam Melroy, is a former Air Force test pilot, with a Master’s degree from MIT, who was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1994 and went on to fly three Space Shuttle missions, including one as the Commander. She joined the office last month, and we are very excited to have her in the office. Pam, would you stand, please? If you haven’t already done so, let me encourage you to stop by and introduce yourself; I’m sure you will enjoy getting to know her.

Let me tell you about some of the things the rest of us have been working on since our last COMSTAC meeting back in October. Last Fall, we issued the first-ever FAA reentry license to SpaceX for their Dragon capsule, leading up to the very successful mission on December 8, when SpaceX became the first private company to launch and recover a spacecraft from orbit.

In February, the President issued his FY2012 budget request, which included a sizeable increase for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Although in today’s environment, any organization slated for a 74% increase can expect to attract considerable scrutiny, I believe that we have a solid basis for our request. Just looking at the number of licensed and permitted launches, I expect to see a 10-fold increase next year, including not only the cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station, but also the start of regular and frequent launches by several reusable launch vehicle operators, both manned and unmanned. In addition, we plan to start up the operation of our Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at KSC, which will have four focus areas: Spaceflight Safety, Spaceflight Engineering and Standards, Range Operations, and Space Traffic Management. We are planning to hire 50 people in the first year, but the Center could grow over time if funding is available.

The budget request also includes a Low Cost Space Incentives program. Because the high cost of access to space continues to be an impediment to robust commercial development, we plan to offer a $5 million prize for the first non-governmental team to demonstrate a launch system having at least one reusable, rocket-powered stage that can deliver a 1-kg Cubesat to orbit. We think that such a system could be truly transformational, in that it could open up routine and inexpensive access to space for scientists, researchers, and universities, for NASA, the military, and industry itself.

Some of you may recall that last year we issued our first-ever Safety Approval to NASTAR, for their combination centrifuge/simulator system, which can be used to replicate the acceleration profile that one would experience in a suborbital space tourism flight. Last month, we issued our second Safety Approval, this time to Zero Gravity Corporation, for their Boeing 727 parabolic aircraft system, which is capable of providing a reduced gravity environment for either spaceflight training or research.

Also in April, we issued an experimental launch permit to Blue Origin for their suborbital reusable launch vehicle, and we look forward to working with them on their upcoming flight test program.

We are continuing to stand up the Commercial Space Transportation Center of Excellence that the FAA established last year. New Mexico State University was selected as the lead for that program, but there are actually nine different universities involved, including Stanford, the University of Colorado, the University of Texas Medical Branch, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Florida Institute of Technology, and the Florida Center of Advanced Aero Propulsion. You’ll be hearing more about our progress with the Center of Excellence later on during the meeting.

We’re also hopeful that we will be able to continue with our Spaceport Grants program. Last year, Congress provided $500,000 for the program, which allowed us to award four separate grants to Kodiak Launch Complex, Alaska; Mojave Air & Space Port, California; Spaceport America in New Mexico; and Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida. We published an announcement of a potential FY2011 grant program in the Federal Register on March 18; applications are due on Friday, May 13. Should Congress decide to provide funding for the program this year, we would be prepared to evaluate the proposals we receive and make the selections before the end of the year.

One of our top priorities right now involves working with NASA on their Commercial Crew Development Program. We currently have one of our employees serving a detail with Ed Mango’s Commercial Crew Program Office at KSC, and NASA has detailed one of their folks to our office here in Washington, DC. We also have two of our engineers who work full time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to stay plugged in to activities there. Recently, NASA has been developing a series of requirements documents to help industry understand what will be expected of them in building and operating “human-rated” systems. They have scheduled a Commercial Crew Program Requirements Workshop in Cocoa Beach, Florida later on this month to review those documents with their industry partners.

If the Commercial Crew Program is going to be successful, it will be very important that NASA’s requirements and the FAA’s regulations are compatible. If the two agencies end up providing conflicting or contradictory guidance to industry, the business cases won’t close, and the industry isn’t going to survive. Fortunately, both NASA and the FAA are highly motivated to make this work. For our part, we have scheduled a public meeting for May 26, 2011, the day after NASA’s workshop, at the same hotel in Cocoa Beach. The purpose will be to ask industry what kind of regulatory approach makes sense for commercial orbital human spaceflight. We’ll share some of our ideas, but we want to hear your perspectives.

We know that having too many detailed and prescriptive requirements could be a problem. On the other hand, there may be some things that we can all agree on in terms of best practices, industry standards, and engineering judgment, when it comes to designing, building, and operating spacecraft intended to carry people into orbit. One could probably have an interesting debate on whether it is appropriate to have a single level of safety for all human spaceflight, or whether mission success probabilities, risk tolerance, or corporate philosophy should be factors. In any case, we’d love to hear your views.

If you are not able to attend the meeting, or if you’d like to take your time in drafting some written recommendations on the subject, we’ll be opening up a docket for several weeks after the meeting to allow you to share your thoughts.

So that’s what we’ve been up to lately. As I am fond of saying, “this is an exciting time for commercial space transportation.” I’d like to thank all of you for being here today, and I’d especially like to thank our COMSTAC members for your service, for your feedback, and for your advice. We really appreciate it.

We’ve got an excellent agenda for today’s meeting, so let’s get started.

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