"Before This Decade is Out"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, D.C.
May 26, 2012

International Space Development Conference

Good afternoon, everyone. Fifty-one years ago yesterday, on May 25, 1961, the United States began what was to become a very exciting and transformational period in space. The triggering event was a speech by President John F. Kennedy to a special session of Congress, in which he challenged our nation to land American astronauts on the moon and return them safely to earth within the decade. At that point in time, America's entire human spaceflight experience consisted of one 15-minute suborbital flight by Alan Shepard. But over the years that followed, we quickly advanced to orbital flights, spacewalks and rendezvous and docking demonstrations, and several successful moon landings. There was a lot going on in space in those days, and it seemed like there was a record being set, or a new capability being tested, on just about every mission.

I believe that the decade ahead is going to be equally exciting and transformational for America's space activities. This time though, instead of being defined by a large government program, it's going to be led by the private sector. Instead of kicking things off with a Presidential address, let's mark the beginning of our new commercial space race from the arrival of the first commercial cargo mission at the International Space Station. Now to be clear, although I do want to congratulate SpaceX on their fantastic accomplishment yesterday, the progress we are going to see over the next few years isn't going to be about just one rocket or one particular company. It's going to be about an industry. The American aerospace industry. And the skill, the ingenuity, and the determination of the people who work in that industry.

Let me offer some predictions. Before this decade is out, by the end of December 2019, I believe that we are going to see some amazing things:

  • The FAA, perhaps by that time renamed the Federal Aerospace Administration, will be regularly sending out space traffic advisories, recommended collision avoidance maneuvers, and space weather reports, and approving flight plans for frequent excursions in and out of the National Airspace.
  • After several years of discussion about resources and potential benefits, the FAA's Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center will finally have become a reality, with state of the art research being performed, lessons learned and best practices being shared, and industry consensus standards being developed for vehicles, spaceports, and operations.
  • The FAA's Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation, which involves a partnership between government, industry, and academia, will be continuing to grow every year, and the research results that it generates will have proven to be so valuable, that the Center will be self-sufficient, no longer requiring significant funding from the federal government.
  • I expect to see regular commercial cargo missions not only to the International Space Station, but also to multiple commercially operated space stations, some focused on space and earth science and scientific research, and others intended for so-called sovereign clients or space tourism.
  • Based on the successful completion of NASA's COTS, CRS, and Commercial Crew Development programs, commercial human spaceflight missions to and from low Earth orbit will be commonplace, with multiple companies providing safe, reliable, and cost effective transportation to and from low earth orbit.
  • Inspired by the Google Lunar XPrize, there will likely be several commercial rovers continuing to operate on the lunar surface, and sending back high definition video of the lunar landscape.
  • I wouldn't be surprised to see a commercially operated on-orbit propellant depot that can service a variety of space tugs and potentially even government spacecraft that are designed for beyond-earth-orbit exploration missions.
  • We may also see a commercial proof of concept space solar power demonstrator that can transmit power from outer space to collection stations on the ground.
  • Suborbital space tourism will be a major segment of the industry, with hundreds of people flying to the edge of space every year. In fact, as you may know, only a few more than 500 people have had the opportunity to travel to space. By the end of the decade, I expect more than 500 people to be launching to space every year.
  • I believe we'll see a number of unmanned suborbital reusable launch vehicles flying on at least a weekly basis, and offering opportunities for significant science and technology investigations to be conducted, many of them in direct support of college and university research efforts.
  • By the end of the decade, I think we will see the testing of vehicles that are capable of point to point transportation through space, something that international travelers and companies like Federal Express are not surprisingly very interested in.
  • Over the next several years, as a result of strong interest from state and local governments and other organizations all over the country, we should see several new licensed spaceports in operation, including sites in Colorado, Texas, Hawaii, and Alabama.
  • And finally, My prediction is that by 2019, the number of licensed and permitted launches will exceed 1000 launches per year, an average of more than 3 per day.

Those are some of my predictions. I'd be interested in hearing what other folks think. Let's get some reflections from our panel of experts, who can also tell us what they have been working on lately, and what they see in the commercial space arena in the years ahead.

Our panel includes Dennis Stone from the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, NASA JSC; Mat Dunn from SpaceX; and Jeff Greason from XCOR Aerospace.