"The Road Less Traveled"
Dr. George C. Nield, Williamsburg, Virginia
June 2, 2011
Aerospace Today and Tomorrow Symposium
Good morning, everyone.
If you’re like most people I know, every once in a while you end up at a crossroads of some kind – in a situation in which you are facing two or more options on how to proceed, and you need to decide what you are going to do. Back in 1915, Robert Frost wrote a poem describing such a time in his own life, when he had come upon two roads that diverged in a yellow wood. After looking down one as far as he could, he ended up taking the one less traveled, and observed that that had made all the difference. More recently, another philosopher of sorts, Yogi Berra, advised, “When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.”
It seems to me that today the nation is facing a very important fork in the road, in terms of how it approaches the management and execution of our human spaceflight program. Next month, after Atlantis completes our final Space Shuttle mission, the United States will no longer have the capability to launch its own astronauts into orbit. Instead, we’ll need to rely on our Russian partners to sell us seats on their Soyuz spacecraft, at $62 million a pop, in order to get our crewmembers to and from the International Space Station. That’s not exactly the ideal position for us to be in, and it’s a predicament that is likely to last for 4–5 years, perhaps even longer.
Going forward, we could have the government design, build, and operate a new launch vehicle and spacecraft to replace the Shuttle. NASA could come up with the optimal design, contractors could be selected, and cost-plus contracts could be issued to do the work. After all, that’s how we’ve always done it in the past. And that seems to be the approach favored by some people, both in the industry and in the Congress.
There is another way, though, an approach that has been recommended by three different Presidential commissions over the last 10 years. And that is for the government to increase its reliance on private industry.
Back in 2002, the President’s Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, which was chaired by Robert 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.”
With those three reports as a backdrop, I am pleased to report that today, NASA is in the process of putting some of that advice into practice, of actually making things happen in a non-traditional way. 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.
At the same time that NASA is working with industry on a commercial crew system for orbital transportation, several other companies are hard at work developing different vehicles, for a different mission, with different customers. I’m talking, of course, about suborbital space tourism. Given what is happening in the industry today, I think it is quite likely, that within the next several years, we will see multiple companies flying paying customers to the edge of space, at altitudes above 100 km, several times per week. That will mean that we could have hundreds of suborbital launches taking place every year, with thousands of people being able to experience spaceflight firsthand. No longer will astronauts be limited to government employees who are highly trained, carefully screened, and sometimes mysteriously chosen for a once or twice in a lifetime assignment. Instead, if you can afford to buy a ticket, you’ll have a chance to go. Although it will certainly be expensive at first, the price is likely to come down rapidly once competition kicks in. And even if you decide not to go yourself, there is a good chance you’ll have friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members who will take advantage of the opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream.
That kind of development is really going to change the way we think about human spaceflight. The emergence of a brand new sector of the industry will have its own set of challenges and opportunities, which I hope we get a chance to delve into during our discussion this morning.
We’re fortunate today to have a diverse and well-qualified panel to talk about the full range of ongoing commercial space initiatives, including both commercial crew efforts, and suborbital reusable launch vehicles. You have the full biographies in your handouts, but let me briefly introduce our panelists.
John Elbon is the Vice President and Program Manager for Commercial Crew Programs at The Boeing Company.
Larry Williams is the Vice President for Strategic Relations for SpaceX.
Jeff Greason is President and co-founder of XCOR Aerospace.
James Murray is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of BOOSTER.
And Will Pomerantz is Vice President for Special Projects at Virgin Galactic.
Please welcome our distinguished panel.