"Suborbital Synergies"
Dr. George C. Nield, Bloomfield, Colorado
June 3, 2013

Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference


Thank you, Alan [Stern], and good morning everyone.

I’d like to start my remarks today with a fairy tale from long ago and far away. Once upon a time, there was a great and powerful king who had three sons. The king wanted the best for his children, so he hired the finest tutors for them. Over the years, they did well in their studies, and mastered the arts and sciences. But the king was concerned that they hadn’t been able to learn all that they needed to know about life. He called them in, one by one, and announced that he was ready to retire, and that he planned to turn over the throne to them. Each, in turn, praised his father’s wisdom and declined the offer. Although this pleased the king, he was concerned that they still had some growing up to do. So he pretended to be angry that they had refused his invitation, and banished them from the kingdom.

During their journey, they visited other lands and had many adventures, including one in which they were able to use their powers of observation and scientific reasoning to describe in detail a lost camel that they had never actually seen. After being wrongly accused of stealing the camel, the men were hauled before the Emperor to plead their case. As it turned out, the Emperor was so impressed with their problem solving abilities that he gave them generous rewards and appointed them as his personal advisors. I’ll save the rest of the details for another time, but rest assured, there is a happy ending.

This story, often called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” is said to be the source of the term “serendipity.” The word was first used by Horace Walpole, an 18th century English historian and Member of Parliament, and refers to “happy accidents,” “pleasant surprises,” or “the phenomenon of finding valuable things not sought for.” After pondering the future of commercial space transportation, and specifically the many good things that are likely to come out of suborbital spaceflight, I originally thought that our industry would make a great case study in serendipity. But upon further reflection, I am having second thoughts. Certainly, as suborbital launches become more frequent, we are going to learn things, and I am confident that there will be a number of valuable outcomes. But I suspect that most of the people in this room can list a whole host of benefits that we expect to see from suborbital operations. So I’m not sure it makes sense to focus on the surprises we may encounter. We can already clearly identify numerous advantages and positive consequences associated with developing and operating suborbital vehicles, and I think it’s fair to say that all of us are working hard to make them a reality.

So instead of speculating about serendipitous discoveries, I’d like to talk about synergies. The word synergy is defined as “a mutually advantageous conjunction of distinct business participants or elements.” When the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, when we have a situation in which 1+1=3, that’s synergy. I can think of at least three different kinds of “Suborbital Synergies” that are likely to play out in the years ahead.

First of all, there are synergies between vehicle operators and the various markets that have been identified for suborbital spaceflight. Last summer, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and Space Florida jointly sponsored a study of potential markets for suborbital reusable vehicles that was conducted by the Tauri Group. They identified eight different potential markets, including:

•      Commercial Human Spaceflight

•      Basic and Applied Research

•      Aerospace Technology Test and Demonstration

•      Media and Public Relations

•      Education

•      Satellite Deployment

•      Remote Sensing

•      Point-to-Point Transportation

I think it is really interesting to note that most, if not all, of those markets are represented in the papers being presented at this conference. The Tauri Group study concluded that, at least in the near-term, Commercial Human Spaceflight will constitute the dominant market segment, with over 80% of the demand. Whether that will hold true in the long term remains to be seen. One school of thought holds that individual Space Tourists would be unlikely to fly more than once or twice, whereas universities, research labs, or scientific investigators might be expected to fund ongoing programs involving a large number of launches. The key point though, is this: whether the development of safe, reliable, and cost-effective vehicles eventually translates into a “push” to potential users, or whether the customer community generates a strong “pull” on the developers and operators, with the lure of future profits, there is a virtuous cycle here that appears to be right on the threshold of getting kicked off of dead center.

A second set of synergies exists between spaceports and the broader aerospace community. As you may know, there are currently eight FAA-licensed spaceports in the United States: Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral; Cecil Field Spaceport, in Jacksonville, Florida; the California Spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Mojave Air & Space Port, both in California; Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska; Spaceport America in New Mexico; the Oklahoma Spaceport, at what used to be Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base; and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, at Wallops Island, Virginia. Unfortunately, very few of those spaceports are scheduling a lot of launches right now. But that hasn’t slowed the recent groundswell of planning activity. Our office has been contacted by state and local government officials from a number of different communities, including folks from Texas, Colorado, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Hawaii, all of whom are interested in having spaceports on their home turf. Yet it’s likely to be a while before we see more than a handful of launches take place from most of the current or future sites. Looked at from one perspective, that could be a problem. On the other hand, it could also represent an opportunity.

I think most people would acknowledge that Stu Witt has done an outstanding job of keeping things hopping out at Mojave while we wait for the vehicles to start flying at a more rapid pace. He seems to have a knack for signing up tenants and filling up his hangars. Who would have guessed that you could successfully operate an intermodal transportation hub out in the middle of the California desert? I certainly salute him for his success and his impressive business savvy, and I would encourage other spaceport operators to think about how he has been able to attract such a wide variety of businesses. But I’m not going to be ready to celebrate Mojave as a mature and thriving commercial spaceport until he has his hangars and warehouses filled with more spaceship parts than wind turbine parts.

So is there anything that spaceports can do, other than maintaining their launch pads and runways, and waiting for the rockets to show up? I think there is, at least over the long term. I would challenge the spaceport community to broaden their thinking, and to imagine a variety of non-launch, space-related activities that might nicely complement the rocket launches themselves. For example, there are a number of different kinds of flight crew or spaceflight participant training activities that might fit the bill: things like centrifuge operations, altitude chambers, parabolic aircraft flights, high-performance aircraft experiences, or various types of classroom training, similar to the ground schools that we have for aviation. I can also envision satellite campuses for universities or community colleges, with the opportunity either to do scientific or technical research, or for real hands-on training in areas ranging from vehicle manufacturing, operations, and maintenance, to payload integration and refurbishment. If we can get to the point where we are able to reach a critical mass of aerospace activities at our spaceports, the infrastructure and employment opportunities for the peripheral activities may end up outweighing those directly in support of the spaceflights.

Finally, I see synergies between suborbital spaceflight and NASA's Commercial Crew Development program. Given that Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada are all chomping at the bit to demonstrate their ability to launch people into low-Earth orbit, and given the longer-than-anticipated development times for the vehicles being put together by Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and others, I’ve heard some people making bets on whether the next commercial human spaceflight is going to be orbital or suborbital. Whichever comes first, I feel extremely confident that we will be seeing both kinds of operations taking place on a regular basis within the next three to four years.

And each kind of operation will result in lessons being learned that can help the other. The companies conducting orbital missions are, by necessity, going to be focusing on things like reliability, aborts, trajectory optimization, environmental control and life support systems, space suits, and reentry heating. All of those things could result in improved designs or procedures for the folks operating suborbital vehicles. On the other hand, the suborbital operators will, if they want to stay in business, quickly become experts in operability, and in achieving rapid turnarounds and high flight rates. After all, that’s what reusable launch vehicles are made for. And once we figure out how to do that well, it seems clear to me that many of the lessons will translate into improved designs for vehicles that can actually reach orbit. So ironically, it may well be that what we learn from doing space tourism flights or suborbital research missions will end up helping us learn how to build safer, more reliable, and more cost-effective systems for taking people to orbit, whether we are transporting them to the International Space Station, or just launching them on the first leg of a deep-space exploration mission.

Speaking of learning, I’d like to give you an update on our Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. I’m really excited about this effort, which is a public/private partnership between government, industry, and academia that is designed to allow students and professors from around the country to do research on topics of that are of interest to the aerospace community. Prior to sequestration, the FAA had committed to providing $1 million per year for this program, and I’m hoping that we will be able to maintain at least that level of funding in the future. We’ve also invited NASA and the DoD to join in, if they are interested. The nice thing is, every dollar from the federal government is required to be matched, dollar for dollar, by the schools or by industry. So it turns out to be a great deal for the taxpayer. There are currently nine different member universities, including the University of Colorado, just up the road from here. But we have recently created an affiliate membership category, which will allow additional colleges and universities, or other entities, to participate in Center activities. Although the affiliate members will not be receiving federal funding, they will have access to our research and development strategic planning and technology road-mapping efforts, and they will have an opportunity to collaborate with us in finding solutions to a number of real-world, high-priority challenges related to commercial space. If you are interested in finding out more about the affiliate membership program, please try and catch me during one of breaks here at the conference, or send me an email, and we’ll get you some additional information.

This is an exciting time for commercial space transportation. It seems like every month we are seeing new vehicles starting their flight tests, new systems being assembled, or new business plans being announced. And the pace is definitely accelerating. As just one example of that, last year, in FY 2012, there were a grand total of three FAA-licensed or permitted launches. So far this year, with several months left to go in FY 2013, we have already had 13 licensed or permitted launches. That’s more than a four-fold increase! Going forward, given the number of applications that we have been receiving in recent months, it’s only going to get busier.

I’d like to congratulate Alan Stern and the organizers of this conference for making it such a successful event, year after year. You have clearly identified a compelling vision for the future of suborbital scientific research, and by bringing together this group of dedicated, motivated, and hard-working people, and asking folks to share their ideas, their plans, their progress, and their concerns, you have helped all of us to move that much closer to making that vision a reality. Thank you for inviting me to participate. I look forward to having a chance to visit with all of you, and to hearing from the other presenters.

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