"Colorado's Future in Space"
Dr. George C. Nield, Colorado Springs, Colorado
April 19, 2012
National Space Symposium
Governor Hickenlooper, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen: Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this very special luncheon, celebrating Colorado's many past, present, and future contributions to our nation's space program.
Colorado has always had a special place in my heart. I was fortunate to be able to spend four years as a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy just up the road, where I was first exposed to astronautical engineering, and where I frequently had the opportunity to slip the surly bonds of earth as a fledgling glider pilot. A few years later, I was asked to serve a tour of duty on the Academy faculty, and had the privilege of teaching future Air Force officers about the intricacies of orbital mechanics and the fine points of spacecraft design. One of our daughters was even born here in Colorado, and a couple of decades later she became an Academy grad herself.
But coming back to Colorado this week, it really struck me how big of an impact this state is having on our nation's space program. One can start with the great work of the Space Foundation, including organizing this National Space Symposium. What an amazing gathering of everyone who is anyone in the space community. Isn't this a fantastic event?
Actually, Colorado has been part of the action in space since the very beginning of the space age. For example, if you look back at the list of our early astronaut heroes, you'll find that Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury astronauts; Jack Swigert, from the Apollo 13 mission; and El Onizuka, who was part of the Challenger crew; all had ties to Colorado. More broadly, the University of Colorado has actually had 20 of its alumni selected as NASA astronauts, while the Air Force Academy has seen 45 of its graduates travel to space.
Colorado also boasts a veritable "Who's Who" of companies that are deeply engaged in conquering the final frontier: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, United Launch Alliance, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Ball Aerospace, just to name a few. When it comes to government space organizations, there's Air Force Space Command, the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command, NORAD, United States Northern Command, and Air Force bases at Schriever, Buckley, and Peterson that are all involved in our national security space efforts. And don't forget the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder. So Colorado is right in the thick of things when it comes to space.
But we're facing some challenges right now, and we're going to need your help. Today, the United States is in the process of undergoing some major changes in our space program. Since the launching of the very first satellite more than 50 years ago, spaceflight, and especially human spaceflight, has been almost exclusively under the purview of the federal government. Going forward though, private industry is going to be playing a major role in space transportation, especially for flights to low Earth orbit, and for suborbital spaceflights. Later on this year, two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, are planning to demonstrate the capability to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Because those will be commercial launches, they will be licensed by the FAA. If all goes well, the two companies will then begin providing regular delivery service for NASA, taking food, clothes, and experiments to the Station several times each year.
When it comes to human spaceflight, now that NASA has retired the Space Shuttle, the United States finds itself totally dependent on Russia to take our astronauts to and from the ISS. And oh by the way, we have to pay them more than $60 million per seat every time we want to hitch a ride.
Personally, I'd like to see that money going to American companies, and to have them building and launching American rockets, carrying American spacecraft, and employing American workers. There is certainly no shortage of companies who are eager to take on the job. In fact, NASA has agreements in place with seven different companies to help them develop their concepts for commercial crew transportation, and there is a proposal evaluation going on right now for the next phase of the program. Depending on the amount of funding available, several of the companies hope to be ready to begin test flights within the next few years.
In addition to launching satellites, and carrying cargo and crew members to the International Space Station, there are at least two other market segments that are expected to grow rapidly over the next few years: space tourism and suborbital scientific research. Our office is working with about half a dozen companies, each of which is in the process of designing, building, and testing vehicles that are capable of taking people up to the edge of space, where they will be able to look out the window and see the black sky and the curvature of the Earth, and experience the magic of weightlessness. Now frankly, we know that not all of those companies are going to be successful. Some may encounter unexpected technical difficulties, while others may run out of money. But there are enough highly-capable and well-funded efforts going on right now, that I am absolutely convinced that within the next five years, we are going to see multiple companies flying regular and frequent suborbital human spaceflights. Instead of four or five Space Shuttle launches per year, carrying a handful of highly trained, carefully selected government astronauts, we're going to have hundreds of launches each year, with thousands of people having the opportunity to personally experience spaceflight.
Another key point about this new suborbital industry is that most of the vehicles being developed are about the size of a business jet, and several are designed for horizontal takeoffs and landings. So they won't necessarily need huge launch pads and vehicle assembly buildings in order to operate. If the sites in question have reasonable runway lengths and the appropriate kinds of propellant storage and hangar facilities, it should be possible to conduct suborbital launches from a number of different spaceports around the country. When the Governor's office started talking about having a spaceport here in Colorado, I know that there were a few eyebrows raised in response. I suspect that some people were picturing a Space Shuttle launch, or that of an Atlas V or a Delta IV, and wondering, "How are you going to do that in the middle of the country?" But for suborbital space tourism or for launches to conduct scientific research, operating from Front Range Airport or a similar location could be ideal. So we have already started discussions with the folks at the airport there and with the Adams County Commissioners' office to see how we could make that work.
One thing's for sure, whether you are talking about building a new spaceport or figuring out how to develop safer, more reliable, and more cost effective space vehicles, we are going to need a lot of bright, hard working, and highly motivated young people to find solutions to the many technical problems we are facing, and to provide qualified employees for our future aerospace workforce. To deal with these challenges, the FAA recently established a Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. It's really a partnership between government, industry, and academia, and it is intended to allow students and faculty members to carry out research on topics of interest to the commercial space community. The FAA has committed to investing $1 million per year for the next ten years on the Center of Excellence, and those funds will be matched dollar for dollar from non-federal sources, so that makes it an outstanding deal for the taxpayers. The Center today involves nine different universities around the country, including a very strong program at the University of Colorado, and we are very excited about all of the great research that is already getting underway there and at the other universities.
One final thought for those of you who live here in Colorado. You are very fortunate to have a leadership team in the statehouse, and representing you in Congress back in Washington, D.C., that is focused on the future and that is committed to moving forward in space. Just as one simple example, within the last few months, I received letters signed by Governor Hickenlooper, Senators Bennett and Udall, and all seven Colorado members of the House of Representatives, highlighting the state's many aerospace capabilities and requesting that the FAA designate Colorado as a proposed spaceport state. So we have done that, and we have added Front Range Airport to the map we maintain showing both currently licensed and proposed spaceports. The fact that both your state leadership and your entire Congressional delegation were willing to engage with us in support of this local aerospace initiative certainly says a lot, and it really got a lot of attention back in Washington.
On behalf of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, let me assure you that we are committed to partnering with the Congress, the Governor and other state officials, with industry, academia, and with the general public, to enable a safe and successful commercial space industry for Colorado, and for the nation.
Thank you very much for allowing me to speak with you today. I look forward to working with each of you to help our space dreams become a reality.