"The Whole World is Watching"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, DC
October 14, 2011
Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee Meeting
Thank you, Chris, and good morning everyone.
Before we get started, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce Greg Rasnake, who joined our office last month as our new Director of External Relations. Greg has a law degree from the University of Oklahoma, and he has held a variety of senior-level positions, including serving as the Deputy Director of the FAA Budget Office, and Chief of Legislative Affairs at the Justice Department. We’re very happy to have Greg’s help as we try to do a better job of explaining our roles and responsibilities, and our vision of the future of commercial space transportation, to our various stakeholders. If you haven’t had a chance to meet Greg, please make it a point to stop by and introduce yourself during one of the breaks today.
Given everything that is going on right now, things have been rather busy around here lately. But during my spare time, when I’m not engaged in trying to advance the cause of commercial space transportation, I will frequently take the opportunity to listen to music, whether it’s to liven up my commute on my way to and from work every day, or to keep my mind occupied when I’m working out on the treadmill. I’d have to say that one of my favorite musical groups is “Chicago.” For those of you who are not familiar with the group, they are sometimes described as a Rock & Roll band with horns. Their instrumentation consists of a trumpet, a trombone, a saxophone, a guitar, and drums. Founded in 1967, they are actually one of the longest running and most successful groups in musical history. In fact, when it comes to American bands, they are second only to the Beach Boys in terms of the number of singles and albums sold, with sales of over 38 million units, including 22 gold albums, 18 platinum albums, and 8 multi-platinum albums.
Their very first album, which I enjoy listening to on occasion, is aptly titled Chicago Transit Authority. One of the tracks on that album is labeled “Prologue, August 29, 1968,” but it’s not really a song. It’s actually a recording of one of the demonstrations that took place outside of the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, where the 1968 Democratic National Convention was being held. As the police attempted to disperse the crowd, the protesters began chanting in unison, “The Whole World is Watching. The Whole World is Watching. The Whole World is Watching.”
As we look at what is going on in the commercial space transportation arena today, I sometimes get the feeling that “The Whole World is Watching” what is going on in our industry, and they are all trying to determine whether or not we are going to be successful. If I had to categorize the onlookers, I would divide them into three basic camps. The first group is made up of enthusiastic supporters. Most of us here today would probably be in that group. We love the space program, and whether we’re talking about operations onboard the International Space Station, the amazing Hubble Telescope, those spunky Mars rovers, the recent launch and recovery of the Dragon spacecraft, or the latest glide flights by SpaceShipTwo, we are excited and impressed by the technical challenges being overcome, and we always root for a successful completion to the mission at hand, regardless of whether it is NASA, the Air Force, or a private company that is carrying it out.
The second group of onlookers might be called determined opponents. Some of them don’t like the idea of spending any money on outer space when there are so many problems remaining here on earth. Others may feel that, given our current economic situation as a nation, we can no longer afford to have expensive, discretionary activities like a space program. Still others may be OK with having a space program; they just think that launching rockets is an inherently governmental function, so private industry need not apply.
The final group of observers can be described as skeptical fence-sitters. They’re not necessarily against commercial space; they just can’t see how such a thing could possibly be successful. You might hear a variety of opinions from this group on why that is the case. Some people don’t believe industry is capable of building launch vehicles and spacecraft without government direction. Given the history of the EELV program, and many other examples, that assertion is pretty easy to refute. So the argument changes: Maybe industry is capable of building rockets to take astronauts to the International Space Station, but a rational company would never decide to do that, because there is no commercial market for crew transportation. The fact that companies are continuing to line up to compete for the various phases of the Commercial Crew Development Program is somehow lost on this group. So the argument shifts once again: Perhaps some companies are capable of building rockets that can carry people to LEO, and maybe some of them even think that they can close their business cases if they use optimistic market assessments consisting of thrill-seeking millionaires or commercial space station customers. But the skeptics insist that such companies will never be able to maintain a good safety record, because they will always be tempted to cut corners in order to maximize their profits.
I reject that line of argument, too. Brewster Shaw, who until recently served as Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration at the Boeing Company, used to like to point out that one of Boeing’s most valuable assets is its world-wide reputation for building safe and reliable aircraft. Such a reputation would be instantly tarnished if Boeing began making inappropriate tradeoffs between safety and profitability. In simplest terms, it just isn’t in any company’s best interests to make a habit of killing or maiming its customers. Realistically speaking then, safety just isn’t one of the variables that can be routinely traded off against cost.
So if those are the three groups of observers out there – the enthusiastic supporters, the determined opponents, and the skeptical fence-sitters – what kinds of things are they likely to observe over the next few years? It seems to me that our industry is becoming quite a bit more diversified in its activities, and that’s a good thing. In fact, I can count six different kinds of missions that commercial companies will be performing in the near future.
Mission number one is satellite launch. It used to be that commercial space transportation was almost exclusively about launching communication satellites into geosynchronous orbit using expendable launch vehicles. That still happens, of course, but that is no longer all there is.
Mission number two is commercial cargo. Over the next few months, two different companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, will be attempting to demonstrate their ability to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. That will be an important milestone, particularly given the recent retirement of the Space Shuttle.
Mission number three is commercial crew. It will probably be several years before we see U.S. companies carrying people all the way into orbit, but there is plenty of work going on right now that is aimed at ending our reliance on the Russians for human transport to LEO. And it won’t be long before we see abort tests being conducted, followed by unmanned demonstration launches of vehicles designed for the commercial crew mission.
Mission number four is suborbital research. As part of its new Flight Opportunities Program, NASA recently awarded contracts to six different companies that are developing commercially operated reusable launch vehicles that are capable of carrying various science or technology payloads. Once the program gets underway, NASA hopes to be able to fly those missions as often as once per week.
Mission number five is space tourism. If Futron’s 2002 study of the market proves accurate, and I am confident that it will, we should expect to see space tourism become a billion dollar industry within the next 10 years. And with the formal dedication of Spaceport America scheduled to take place next week, the beginning of commercial services is likely just around the corner.
Mission number six involves the development and test of Reusable Launch Vehicles. In addition to the RLVs that will be needed for suborbital research and space tourism, there are several other technology programs already underway, including a Reusable Booster System being developed for the Air Force Research Lab, and the testing that SpaceX plans to do in order to recover its Falcon 9 first stage.
That’s a lot of different kinds of activity. Some of those programs may experience technical or financial difficulties of course. But with such a wide variety of vehicles and missions being worked on, it gives me confidence that our industry is becoming more capable, more mature, and more sustainable.
It’s going to be a busy time during these next few years. At the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, we'll certainly do our best to keep up, and to help those of you in industry to be both safe and successful in your efforts. It won’t be easy. Not by a long shot. But if we want to convince those skeptics that commercial space really can get the job done, we’re going to have to deliver. And as we go about our work, you can count on the fact that we’ll have a pretty big audience. After all, “The Whole World is Watching.”