"Lessons from Aviation"
Dr. George C. Nield, NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California
July 28, 2011

NewSpace 2011 Conference


Good afternoon.

I’m honored to have the opportunity to speak to you today as part of NewSpace 2011. What a great line-up you have this year, and what an exciting time for us to gather to talk about our nation’s future in space.

 Over the last several weeks, we have seen a huge number of newspaper articles, magazine stories, radio and television reports, and Internet blogs having to do with space, most of which were either focused on the successes and tragedies that were a part of 30 years worth of Space Shuttle operations, or which provided commentary or recommendations on what we need to be doing in space going forward.

As Yogi Berra used to say, “It’s hard to make predications, especially about the future.” But I find that, when you are trying to imagine how things are going to turn out in the years ahead, it can sometimes be helpful to look back in history and see if you can find comparable situations, some historical analogies if you will, that can provide us with key insights.

For example, I think the development of aviation can offer some interesting similarities, and some even more interesting contrasts, with the development of human spaceflight. For my talk today, I’ve gone back and identified four “lessons" that I think we have learned, or that we should have learned, from the aviation industry. I’d like to share those with you, and then spend a few minutes reflecting on whether they might be able to help us to gain a better understanding of how things may unfold in human spaceflight.

Let’s start with a couple of examples from Orville and Wilbur. In December of 1907, just 4 years after the Wright Brothers' historic first flight, the Army Signal Corps put out a request for proposals for a “Heavier-than-air Flying Machine.” The specified requirements were performance-based, and at least in my opinion, were extremely well crafted. Not only that, but they were only 3 pages long. They included the ability to carry a passenger for at least 125 miles at a speed of 40 miles per hour, to stay aloft for at least an hour, to be easily transportable, to be controllable and steerable at all times and in all directions, and to be able to land without damage. Fortunately, those were the days before the FAA’s Federal Aviation Regulations, NASA’s CCT 1100 series documents, or the Federal Acquisition Regulations, so it was pretty easy to understand what the machine had to do, and how to demonstrate that it could satisfy the government’s stated requirements.

As it turned out, the Wright brothers were the only viable bidder. They set up their operations at Fort Myer, Virginia, a military post just outside Washington, DC, and began conducting test flights in the summer of 1908. Then on September 17, 1908, Orville took to the air with Lt Thomas Selfridge onboard as an Army observer. After three laps around the parade ground at an altitude of about 150 feet, one of the propellers suffered a catastrophic stress fracture, causing the vehicle to veer off to the right, and then dive into the ground and crash. Orville suffered a broken leg, several broken ribs, some head lacerations, and a lot of bruises. Lt Selfridge was thrown against one of the vehicle’s wooden uprights, resulting in a fractured skull. He was taken to a local hospital, but died on the operating table, thus becoming the first fatality from an airplane accident.

The first lesson we need to remember then, is that all modes of transportation involve risk, and that we need to recognize and accept that risk in order to move forward.And for those of you who may be in denial, let me assure you that human rating or no human rating, spaceflight is even riskier than aviation. So we know that there are more accidents ahead. But the times have changed. Can you imagine what the response would be if history were to repeat itself during the CCDev Program? Just to review the sequence of events: a developer came up with a system to meet a set of government requirements. One of the government procurement representatives takes part in a demonstration flight. There is a terrible accident, killing the government observer. In response, did the government order the grounding of all airplanes? No. Did the President form a commission to investigate the accident? No. Did the program get cancelled? No. Instead, once Orville was released from the hospital, he thoroughly analyzed the wreckage, enlisted the help of some experts to figure out what had gone wrong, explained it to the Army, built a new, improved vehicle, and then returned to Fort Myer the following summer to continue the demonstration flights. Amazing!

It was actually on July 29, 1909, 102 years ago tomorrow, that Orville performed the first of the two required demonstration flights. Lt Frank Lahm of the Signal Corps was also onboard. On hand to observe were the President of the United States, William Howard Taft, his cabinet and other public officials, plus about 10,000 spectators. This time, everything worked perfectly. They stayed aloft for about an hour and 13 minutes.

Three days later came the second qualifying flight, this one a 10-mile cross-country speed test, that was used to determine the purchase price of the airplane. The army had agreed to pay the Wrights $25,000 if the plane could average 40 miles per hour, with an extra $2500 for each full mile per hour above that mark. For his passenger, Orville selected Benjamin Foulois, a Signal Corps lieutenant who would someday become Chief of the Army Air Corps. Lt Foulois was only 5-feet-1-inch tall, and weighed just 126 pounds, Orville was clearly hoping that his diminutive stature might allow for a greater top-speed during the flight. As it turned out, he may have been right, because their speed averaged 42.5 miles per hour, thereby exceeding the Army’s requirements, and resulting in a $5,000 bonus and a $30,000 total cost to the government.

The Army took delivery of the vehicle on August 2, 1909, designating it as Signal Corps Airplane No. 1. It was the first military heavier-than-air flying machine, and remained the only Army airplane for nearly two years. Clearly, this was an example of a procurement with a satisfied government customer.

So that brings us to the second lesson we can learn from aviation: Aerospace contracts don't always have to be cost-plus. Properly structured and effectively managed, fixed-price government contracts can be successful, even for development programs. Now I know that there are a variety of opinions on that one, but I think it is important to remember the successes along with the failures when we are evaluating potential options for government acquisition strategies.

Skipping ahead a few years, following World War I and the beginning of the barnstorming era, the tremendous potential of aviation had begun to come into focus. But there really wasn't much of an industry at that point, at least in terms of air transportation. Here's where Congress got involved. The first major piece of legislation dealing with aviation was the Air Mail Act of 1925, often referred to as the Kelly Act, after Congressman Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania, who was Chairman of the House Post Office Committee. The Act authorized the postmaster general to contract for domestic airmail service with commercial air carriers. By relying on private companies to take over the conduct of airmail operations, the government was able to establish and nurture the aviation industry itself.

There were some other key pieces of legislation in the years that followed. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 established federal regulations regarding aircraft, airmen, navigational facilities, and air traffic. Aircraft had to be inspected for airworthiness, and airmen were required to be tested for aeronautical knowledge and have a physical exam to ensure their health and fitness. For its part, the government was required to build new airports, develop regulations to provide aircraft with altitude separation, and develop and maintain airways and navigational aids.

The Federal Airport Act of 1946 provided $500 million in grants for airport projects, paid out over 7 years. The grants provided up to half of a project’s cost, with local airport sponsors able to issue bonds to finance the rest of their expenses.

This leads us to a third lesson from aviation: when the government forms a partnership with an industry and puts in place the proper incentives, it can have a profound impact on the growth of that industry and even help to ensure its health and viability.

During the 1950s, advances in technology and continued growth of the aviation industry led to a corresponding increase in air traffic. However, some high-profile accidents led to additional government action. On June 30, 1956, United Flight 718 collided with TWA Flight 2 in uncontrolled airspace over the Grand Canyon, resulting in 128 fatalities, the largest loss of life ever in an aviation accident. Then on May 20, 1958, a military jet and a commercial airliner collided over Brunswick, Maryland, highlighting the need for unified control of airspace for both civil and military flights. The very next day, Senator Mike Monroney and Congressman Oren Harris introduced the Federal Aviation Act, which created the FAA, and empowered it to oversee and regulate the safety of the airline industry, and the use of American airspace by both civilian and military aircraft.

The fourth and final lesson from aviation that I think may have applicability to spaceflight is that as traffic increases, we need to be prepared to come up with ways to share information, develop rules of the road, and coordinate planned maneuvers in advance, whether we are talking about civil operations, military operations, or commercial operations. And if that sounds like a blatant pitch for the community to start thinking about Space Traffic Management, so be it. With the number of space systems in operation today and the amount of orbital debris increasing by the hour, none of us can afford to ignore the threat of a collision, or to pretend that an "anything goes", "Wild West" environment is in anyone's best interest.

So those are some of my thoughts about how government and industry have worked together in aviation. Are those types of initiatives appropriate for human spaceflight? Perhaps. There are certainly many differences in the vehicles, in the environment, and in the circumstances. But based on how successful we have been in enabling safe, reliable, and cost effective air transportation, I think it behooves us to consider some similar approaches as we begin writing the next chapter of our nation’s human spaceflight program.

Before I close, I'd like to spend just a few minutes talking about some of the things that we are working on right now at the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. In addition to evaluating license applications for the launches and reentries scheduled to take place under the COTS program, we are working closely with NASA to make sure that any requirements that either NASA or the FAA put in place for commercial human flights to orbit are consistent and compatible, so that the same systems that industry develops for NASA missions can be used for non-NASA missions as well.

We're also working with about a half dozen companies who are in the process of designing, building, and testing suborbital reusable launch vehicles that could be used for either space tourism or to conduct scientific research.

Last year we established a Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation as a public/private partnership between government, industry, and academia. The idea was to encourage students and faculty members to perform research on topics that are of interest to the aerospace community. New Mexico State University was selected as the Administrative lead, but there are nine universities involved, including Stanford University just up the road, the University of Colorado, and the University of Texas Medical Branch. The FAA has pledged $1 million per year in matching funds for this program. And I might mention that other departments and agencies are welcome to participate, so if those of you from NASA or DoD or other organizations would like to partner with us, we'd be happy to talk with you.

Last year also marked the first year that we were able to issue Spaceport Grants. Every year, the FAA gives out about $3.5 billion in Airport Improvement Grants, which play a vital role in supporting our nation's transportation infrastructure. A similar program for spaceports was authorized by Congress back in the 1990s, but no funds had ever been appropriated until 2010, when we got $500,000 for that purpose. We selected four different projects to fund, at Kodiak Launch Complex, Alaska; Mojave Air and Space Port, California; Spaceport America in New Mexico; and Cecil Field, in Jacksonville, Florida. We hope to be able to award a second round of grants in the next couple of months.

In addition, there are two new initiatives in the President's FY 2012 budget request for our office that we are very excited about. First of all, we are planning to set up a Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at KSC. Our goal is to pull together a team of folks that have the kind of spaceflight hardware and operations expertise that can perform research, make intelligent decisions on waiver requests, and work with industry to streamline range operations for commercial launches. We're also planning to offer a Low Cost Access to Space Prize, that would give $5 million to the first non-government team that can demonstrate the ability to launch a 1-kilogram cubesat into orbit, using a system that has at least one reusable rocket-powered stage.

So those are some of the things that we currently have on our plate.

This is both an exciting time, and a very challenging time, for commercial space transportation. Given where we are today, there is a window of opportunity for us to get our act together and see if we can make this work. But the decisions we make, and the progress we are able to achieve over the next 2-3 years, will determine whether or not the United States is serious about being a leader in space. And that may well determine what kind of future we have as a nation.

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