"A Different Kind of Anniversary"
Dr. George C. Nield, Huntsville, Alabama
May 20, 2011

International Space Development Conference

Good afternoon, everyone. 

This is the time of year when we get to celebrate a number of aerospace anniversaries.  Last month we had both the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight, and the 30th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle mission.  This month marked the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s launch.  All of those events, as impressive and as significant as they may have been, were the result of the efforts of thousands of people working on vehicles that were owned and operated by government agencies – either in the U.S. or in the Soviet Union. However, today marks the anniversary of a very different kind of milestone, one based on an entrepreneurial spirit, tremendous personal courage, unbridled optimism, and the power of free enterprise. It was on May 20, 1927, at 7:52 in the morning, that Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, to begin what was to be a 33-1/2 hour flight in his specially modified craft, the Spirit of St. Louis, allowing him to become the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.

Lindbergh’s success seemed to awaken the public to the possibilities of aviation, and helped to almost single-handedly transform and energize the aviation industry.  In the years immediately following his flight, the number of registered aircraft, the number of licensed pilots, and the number of airline passengers all increased exponentially.

So I think it is very fitting that today we have come together to talk about how the government is trying to enable private industry to take on important new responsibilities in our nation’s space program, by delivering cargo, and eventually crewmembers, to the International Space Station.

The idea that the government should increase its reliance on commercial space transportation really isn’t a new one.  In fact, as former Congressman Bob Walker recently pointed out in a Space News opinion piece, there have been three different presidential commissions over the last 10 years that were tasked with taking a look at the U.S. space program, and all three came to that same basic conclusion.

In its report back in 2002, the President’s Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, which was chaired by Walker, recommended that the government provide incentives to commercial space and observed that public space travel holds the potential for increasing launch demand and improvements in space launch reliability and reusability.

In June 2004, the President’s Commission on Moon, Mars & Beyond, chaired by Pete Aldridge, noted that “NASA’s relationship to the private sector…must be decisively transformed.”  It recommended that NASA procure all of its low-Earth orbit launch services competitively on the commercial market.

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, concluded in its report in October of 2009, that “Commercial services to deliver crew to low-Earth orbit are within reach.”  It noted that while using such an approach would involve some risks, it could provide an “earlier capability at lower initial and lifecycle costs than government could achieve.”

So now that all three reports have been around for a while and most of the printed copies have likely been filed away in various dusty file cabinets and rarely-used government book cases, where are we on implementation?

Well, I am pleased to report that we are in the process of putting some of that advice into practice, of actually making things happen.  The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program is ongoing, contracts for the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program have been awarded and performance-based milestones are being accomplished, and the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program is already well underway, having entered the second phase of the program.  And how are things working out so far?  I think it’s fair to say that while the benefits of commercial space are not yet fully proven, we have seen some very encouraging early results.  If you look at what has been accomplished in the COTS program for a relatively modest government investment – the development of two new launch vehicles, two new spacecraft, assorted ground and flight systems, a successful orbital demonstration, and numerous ongoing reviews and other tests, it’s a pretty impressive return on the taxpayers’ dollars.

From the FAA’s perspective, as the government regulator for these commercial space activities, we are very excited about the progress achieved to date, and we are committed to working with our partners at NASA to enable a brand new industry and to do what we can to regain America’s leadership in human spaceflight as soon as possible.

Note that I mentioned that I am interested in regaining America’s leadership in human spaceflight. Some may question that wording.  After all, aren’t we already the world leader in human spaceflight?

Well, we may be today, but two months from now, after the Space Shuttle Atlantis completes its final mission, the United States will no longer have the capability to launch astronauts into orbit.  And without the capability to do that, I think it would be a real stretch to claim international leadership.  The capability “gap” that we’re about to enter will be a period of uncertain duration, but the fact that we have one at all is something that I find extremely frustrating and completely unnecessary.  We’ve known for more than 7 years that we would be retiring the Space Shuttle—a remarkable vehicle, but one which has now gotten too old, too expensive, and too risky to continue to fly indefinitely.  And yet we as a nation were somehow unable to be ready with a replacement system when we needed one.  We could probably have a pretty spirited debate on the subject, but rather than argue about whose fault it is, or how we got into this predicament, I’d rather focus on what we can do to get out of it.

I’d like to see a high-priority national goal to minimize the gap by fielding a low-Earth orbit crew transportation system as soon as we possibly can.  How long would it take to do that?  Well, we went from program start to first human flight for Project Gemini in a little over three years back in the 1960s.  Knowing what we know today, don’t you think we could beat that schedule today if we really wanted to?

It would be one thing if we had to start from scratch and design, build, and test a whole new launch vehicle.  But there are at least three rockets flying successfully today, that appear to have the potential for safely carrying crewmembers – the Delta IV, the Atlas 5, and the Falcon 9.  So the only thing we really need to focus on is the spacecraft.  And there are a number of U.S. companies who have announced that they are ready, willing, and able to deliver such a system.  NASA just selected four such companies as part of its CCDev-2 program, but there are others waiting in the wings who would love the chance to participate.  By adding the requirement for a crew escape system, something that we have lived without for the last 30 years on the Space Shuttle, we have the opportunity to field a system with a significant increase in overall safety for those onboard. 

With respect to delivering cargo to the ISS, the COTS and CRS programs are scheduled to be able to provide that capability later this year, so I think we are in reasonable shape.  For transporting crew though, I’m more worried.  CCDev is certainly headed in the right direction, and there is a strong potential for getting to a successful conclusion eventually.  But I’m concerned that we are either not going to come up with the funding that will be needed, or that we will waste time arguing about whether there really is a commercial market for crew and cargo, or whether U.S. industry is capable of successfully building and launching rockets without scores of government inspectors looking over their shoulders.

Every day that we delay, is a day that we could have avoided outsourcing this job to the Russians, at $62 million per seat, and instead helping U.S. companies to develop an alternative using American ingenuity, with American jobs, American technologies, and American capabilities, something that will benefit our economy, our national security, our industrial base, and our desire for international leadership.

Speaking for the FAA, we want to do everything we can to support our partners at NASA, and to work closely with industry, to enable these commercial space missions to be both safe and successful.  So let’s get on with it!