"A Golden Age of Commercial Space"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, DC
February 15, 2012

Fifteenth Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference


Good morning! And welcome to the fifteenth annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Commercial: The New Future of Space.” Over the next two days, you will be hearing from some of the key players in our nation’s space program, with representatives from government, industry, and academia speaking about the progress that has been made to date, and the prospects that we are facing in the future.

But before we get started, I’d like to take just a few minutes to look back at an earlier time, during another era of exploration, to see whether there are any insights we can gain that can help us to make our current efforts more successful.

As it turns out, 138 years ago today, on February 15, 1874, Ernest Shackleton was born in Kilkea, Ireland, as the second of ten children. His family moved to the London suburbs when he was ten. Home-schooled by a governess during his early years, he later attended a prep school down the road, and eventually Dulwich College, a highly selective boy’s school.

Ernest’s father, who was a physician, was hoping that his son would follow in his footsteps and study medicine. But Ernest had a passion for adventure and a love of the sea. So at the age of 16, he joined the North Western Shipping Company as a sailor’s apprentice. Over the next several years, he made numerous voyages to the Far East and America, and passed the necessary examinations to become a Second Mate and then a First Mate. At the age of 24, he was certified as a Master Mariner, which qualified him to command a British ship anywhere in the world.

When he heard about the planning being conducted for the National Antarctic Expedition, also known as the Discovery Expedition, after the name of the ship to be used, Shackleton eagerly volunteered. Robert Falcon Scott, a Royal Navy torpedo lieutenant, led the expedition. The primary objectives of the trip were scientific and geographical discovery. They departed London in July of 1901, and arrived at the Antarctic coast, by way of Cape Town and New Zealand, in January of 1902.

After conducting an experimental balloon launch and a trip from McMurdo Sound to the Great Ice Barrier, a three-person team, including both Scott and Shackleton, set off in the direction of the South Pole.

Their trek set a record for the farthest south latitude ever reached, at 82 degrees, 17 minutes. However, all 22 of their sled dogs died, after their food became tainted. And the three men all suffered from snow blindness, frostbite, and scurvy. When they finally got back to their ship, Shackleton was so seriously ill that he had to be sent back home on the relief ship.

But Shackleton wasn’t the kind of person to easily give up on a dream. He eventually led his own expeditions to Antarctica, one with the aim of reaching the South Pole itself, and another that was intended to travel all the way across the continent, from one coast to the other.

In an effort to find volunteers to accompany him on one of his expeditions, Shackleton supposedly put a help-wanted ad in a London newspaper that said, and I quote:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

The story may be apocryphal, but we’re told that 5,000 applicants, including three women, replied to the ad. In the end, he chose a crew of fifty-six, twenty-eight for each of the two ships he needed. Sounds a little like the latest NASA astronaut selection, doesn’t it?

I’ll leave the details of those later journeys for another time. But rest assured, they were filled with discovery, danger, and lots of determination.

So what does any of this have to do with commercial space transportation?

Well, it seems to me that there are a number of lessons that we can learn from those historic voyages of a century ago that are directly applicable to our current efforts in space.

First of all, I think it’s fair to say that most grand and ambitious endeavors typically involve a fair amount of risk. That was certainly true during the conquest of Antarctica, and it is equally true of the conquest of space. Both environments are harsh and unforgiving. An unexpected event or a mechanical malfunction can cause us to have to discard the original plan, and to alter our goals to meet the new circumstances. It’s also important for us to establish and communicate realistic expectations about the hazards involved. There will be more human spaceflight accidents in the future – we know that. After all, there are fatalities in every mode of transportation. That means that we need to talk openly about the risks, so that the general public, the media, and our colleagues on Capitol Hill are prepared for the accident when it occurs, and are willing to let us find the cause, fix it, and move on. Frankly, that’s something that the nation struggled with after the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

Secondly, public/private partnerships can be a very effective way of garnering the funding and other resources needed for major projects. The Discovery Expedition, which I mentioned earlier, was not a government initiative; in fact, it was conceived and organized by a joint committee of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society. Recognizing the scientific and technological benefits of the mission, the British government offered to pay half the cost, provided that the two societies could raise the rest of the needed funds. They were able to do so, thanks to the contributions of a number of wealthy donors and some corporate sponsors. In addition to the support from private individuals, Colman’s provided mustard and flour, Cadbury’s gave 3500 pounds of chocolate, and Jaeger gave a 40% discount on special clothing; several other firms also made significant contributions. So the fact that NASA is providing sizable investments in the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, but is not picking up the entire tab, is really not a new concept.

If we look at the current wave of space system development, it is interesting to think about the impact that a handful of wealthy individuals have had. Paul Allen, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Robert Bigelow, and John Carmack have all put their own money on the line, and they are really making a real difference in how the industry is progressing.

The larger, more traditional aerospace companies potentially have greater resources to work with, but they also have more constraints on their spending, due to the demands of quarterly earnings reports and the need to satisfy boards of directors and public shareholders. Nevertheless, with the government encouraging corporate investment in the design and development of future commercial space systems, we are seeing a number of different companies putting up a substantial amount of private money, even without the promise of contracts from the government or clearly demonstrated private sector markets.

Finally, I am struck by the fact that, at certain points in history, we can see a synergistic confluence of events in which people of vision, courage, and persistence are able to accomplish some amazing things in a way that clearly captures the attention and the support of the general public. In the case of Shackleton and his contemporaries, it resulted in what has come to be called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.” The 25-year period between 1897 and 1922 saw the Antarctic continent become the focus of a significant international effort that resulted in intensive scientific and geographical exploration, with sixteen major expeditions being launched from eight different countries. During this period, most of the continent’s coastline was mapped, and significant areas of the interior were explored. The expeditions also generated large quantities of data across many different scientific disciplines, thus keeping the scientific community busy for many years.

But that’s not the only time such a thing has happened. At the FAA, we frequently talk about the “Golden Age of Aviation,” the period between World War I and World War II during which aviation literally took off. It was a time of barnstorming, the initiation of airmail service, prizes, air races, and a series of various record-breaking “firsts,” including Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic.

As I survey the aerospace landscape today, I think we may be on the threshold of something similar – perhaps what we will someday refer to as the “Golden Age of Commercial Space.” I say that because, just within the next few years, we are likely to see:

•        Commercial cargo flights to the International Space Station

•        The commercial delivery of astronauts to the International Space Station and other destinations

•        Regular and frequent suborbital research flights

•        The beginning of a suborbital space tourism industry, with hundreds of launches taking place every year

•        Licensed spaceports in many new locations, with tenants ranging from NASA, to the military, to private industry

•        And commercial rovers exploring the moon, in response to the Google Lunar XPrize

Further down the line, we could see even more ambitious activities, including:

•        One or more commercial space stations in low Earth orbit

•        Commercial human flights around the moon

•        On-orbit propellant depots

•        Satellite refueling and repositioning services

•        Solar power satellites

•        And point-to-point transportation through space

It’s exciting to think about. And what’s even more exciting to me is that it is the people in this room today that can help to make those things happen. We’ve got senior officials from the key spaceport states, from Capitol Hill, from NASA and the military, representatives from other government agencies, technical experts and managers from the various launch operators, industry associations, spaceports, training firms, the scientific community, and some of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions.

So let me ask you. Are you interested in turning that vision of a Golden Age of Commercial Space into a reality? If you are, please let us know, because we’d like to partner with you. And that applies whether you are in government, industry, or academia; whether you work at the federal, state, or local level; whether you are an operator, legislator, researcher, or regulator. Our goal is to achieve safe, reliable, and cost-effective commercial space transportation. Working together, I am convinced that there are a number of things that we can do that will really make a difference: conducting research, offering prizes, developing standards, implementing lessons-learned databases, and keeping track of and communicating best practices. We can also improve current laws and government policies, and update and streamline existing regulations. Implementing such a plan has the potential to help the industry to grow, create new jobs, and provide an economic boom for the private sector, but in a way that will also benefit the government and the general public.

It’s going to be an exciting time. And over the next two days, we’ll have a chance to talk about how we can make it happen. Thanks again for joining us here today. I hope you enjoy the conference!

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