"What's Next for Commercial Space?"
Dr. George C. Nield, Jacksonville, Florida
March 26, 2012
Cecil Spaceport Development Summit
Good morning, everyone. My name is Dr. George Nield, and I serve as the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C. I’d like to start off my remarks today by congratulating the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, Space Florida, Florida State College at Jacksonville, and the JAXUSA Partnership for organizing this event. What a fantastic idea, to gather all of the key stakeholders together, to talk about the capabilities, and the almost limitless potential, of Cecil Spaceport and the surrounding community to contribute to our nation's space program. We are very proud of the fact that the FAA has issued a launch site operator's license to the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, one of only eight entities to have received such a designation.
I don't know if it got much coverage in the media down here, but last Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Werhner von Braun. Von Braun, of course, was perhaps the person most responsible for the development of the huge Saturn V rocket that carried our Apollo astronauts to the moon and back during the 1960's. And speaking of anniversaries, today, March 26, marks the 54th anniversary of the launch of Explorer III on a modified Jupiter C ballistic missile. Now, I'm familiar with Explorer I – that was the first satellite that the United States successfully put into orbit. But if you're like me, perhaps you haven't heard of Explorer III, or even Explorer II. That may be because Explorer II was a failure. It seems like we had a lot of failures back in those days. In fact, over a 9-month period in 1958, three of the six Jupiter C launches failed to make it to orbit. And for the Vanguard rocket, which President Eisenhower had originally decided was going to be used to launch America's first satellite, the record was even worse—eight failures in the first eleven tries! I think it's fair to say that our country had a different level of risk tolerance back then.
It was an exciting time for spaceflight, but also a frightening time. After all, we were locked in what felt like a life and death struggle with the Soviet Union to claim the military and technological high ground, to impress the rest of the world with the superiority of our way of life, and to be the first nation to have its astronauts set foot on the moon.
The Soviets had gotten off to an impressive start. They had the first satellite in orbit, the first animal in space (a dog named Laika), the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first spacewalk, the first multi-person crew. How were we ever going to catch up? But under the leadership of von Braun and others, we persevered, and we were ultimately successful in winning the race to the moon. We went on to develop the Space Shuttle, a truly remarkable flying machine, and to operate it over a 30-year period for a variety of purposes, including the construction of the International Space Station. Last July, as you know, the Shuttle was retired after completing its 135th mission.
So where does that leave us? Unfortunately, when it comes to human space flight, not in a very good place. The United States today does not have the capability to launch our astronauts into orbit on our own rockets. And until that changes, we are in the position of having to pay the Russians about $60 million per seat for every person that we want to send to the International Space Station. In my opinion, closing that gap ought to be one of the nation's highest priorities. Personally, I'd like to see an interagency crash program to do just that. We need to be doing absolutely everything we can to regain the capability that we first demonstrated 50 years ago last month, with the launch of John Glenn and Friendship 7, to send our astronauts into orbit.
American industry is ready to step up to the plate. NASA already has $3.5 billion in contracts with two different U.S. companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, to take cargo and supplies to our astronauts onboard the International Space Station. Both companies are scheduled to fly their systems to the space station for the first time later on this year. And there are a number of different companies that have signed Space Act Agreements with NASA to develop and demonstrate the capability to take crew members all the way to orbit. So if things go well technically during the development process, and if Congress provides the funding that NASA needs, we will hopefully be back in the orbital human spaceflight business in about 4 or 5 years. I just wish it could be a lot sooner than that.
But make no mistake about it, going forward, things are going to be very different around here. Given our current economic condition, NASA will never again have the luxury of appropriations that amount to more than 4 percent of the federal budget, as it did back in the 1960's. Today, funding for the civil space program amounts to less than 0.5 percent. There just isn't enough money available for NASA to be able to design, build, and operate rockets to go back and forth to the space station, and also to explore the solar system. Fortunately, there is a solution to this dilemma. Since we have been sending spacecraft to low Earth orbit for more than 50 years now, in the future, NASA plans to rely on private industry to take on that responsibility, so that NASA can concentrate on the really hard stuff –going back to the moon, visiting an asteroid, and sending humans to Mars. Once industry shows that it has the right stuff, NASA can just buy the products and services it needs, whenever it needs them, just like it does for many other items, like buying tickets for an airline flight.
That will be a big change, and some people, in NASA, in Congress, and in the general public, are uncomfortable with the new direction. But I am convinced that this new approach is the right thing to do, and that in the end, it will be very successful.
There are other things in the works right now, that may represent an even bigger change to our nation's space program. Specifically, I'm talking about the development of suborbital reusable launch vehicles that can be used for either space tourism, or for scientific research. Right now, our office at the FAA is working with about half a dozen companies, each of which is in the process of designing, building, and testing vehicles capable of taking people up to the edge of space, where they can look out the window, see the black sky and the curvature of the earth, and experience the magic of weightlessness.
We know that not all of these companies will be successful. Some will encounter unexpected technical difficulties. Others will run out of money. But there are enough bright, capable, and well-funded people out there that are working on this, that I am absolutely convinced that within the next 2–3 years we will see multiple companies flying people on suborbital spaceflights on a regular and frequent basis. That means that we will be seeing hundreds of launches every year, with thousands of people having the opportunity to personally experience spaceflight. And that is going to change how we think about spaceflight. Because space will no longer be restricted to a handful of highly trained and specially selected government astronauts. It will be open to you, to members of your family, to your neighbors, your co-workers, anyone who can afford to buy a ticket.
There is an equally exciting new market for conducting scientific research in what is sometimes referred to as the "ignore-o-sphere," at altitudes too high for an airplane to fly, but too low for a satellite to orbit. And for scientists, researchers, professors, and even students, to be able to launch an experiment to the edge of space in the morning, review the data, make a few adjustments in the equipment, and then fly it to space again in the afternoon –well, that just opens up a whole new way of doing space-related research.
Commercial flights to the space station from Cape Canaveral or from the Wallops launch site in Virginia will be very exciting, and they are certainly a very important part of our overall space program. But space tourism, and suborbital research flights, those are areas where those of you from Cecil Spaceport, from Jacksonville companies or academic institutions, and from the rest of the state of Florida can really make your mark.
So what can you do? Form partnerships – with other companies, schools, and government agencies. Be willing to try new ways of doing business. And if you really want to make a difference, consider how you can make an investment in the future, either financially, or with your time or energy, that will help this industry to be successful, or to grow and mature more quickly than it otherwise would. No one company, no solitary spaceport, and no single government agency, is going to be able to single-handedly make this industry successful. But working together, I know we can make it happen.
Thanks again for inviting me to be a part of this very special event. I look forward to working with all of you on our exciting future in space.