"Making a Difference"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, DC
February 7, 2013

Sixteenth Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference

Good afternoon! And thanks again for being part of the sixteenth annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference.

In my remarks at last year’s conference, I spent some time talking about Ernest Shackleton, an Antarctic explorer, who had played a leadership role during some rather remarkable expeditions during the early 1900s. I noted that, during a number of different times in our history as a species, there has been a synergistic confluence of events in which people of vision, courage, and persistence have been able to accomplish some amazing things in a way that clearly captured the attention and the support of the general public. Today I’d like to talk about another such individual. This one was born 111 years ago this week, on February 4, 1902, in Detroit, Michigan. He was an only child, and his father, who was a Swedish immigrant, went on to become a member of Congress. His mother was a high school chemistry teacher. After attending over a dozen different schools during his youth, he enrolled in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, but ended up dropping out in the middle of his sophomore year.

Having become enamored with the idea of being a pilot, he took a few flying lessons and then worked as a wing walker, a parachutist, and a mechanic to pay for additional instruction. He ended up buying a World War I surplus Jenny biplane for $500 even before he had been signed off to solo. After several months of barnstorming around the country, he completed a year of military flight training with the United States Army Air Service, thereby earning his Army pilot’s wings and a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Reserves.

In October of 1925, he was hired by the Robertson Aircraft Corporation as the chief pilot for Contract Air Mail Route #2 to provide service between St. Louis and Chicago, with intermediate stops in Springfield and Peoria. To give you a sense for the state of aviation in those days, during the 10 month period in which he was actually flying the mail, he twice had to bail out of his aircraft due to bad weather, equipment problems, and/or running out of gas. Both instances took place at night as he was approaching Chicago. As an indication of how seriously he took the responsibilities of his job, after safely parachuting to the ground, the first thing he did was to locate the wreckage of his airplane, salvage the bags of mail, and make sure that they were put on a truck or a train to Chicago as quickly as possible.

By now, I suspect that you have figured out that our mystery aviator was none other than Charles Lindbergh. So what was it that transformed him from a talented but unremarkable airmail pilot to an international aviation icon? Well, certainly a key in that transformation was something called the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 prize that was offered by Raymond Orteig, a New York hotel owner, to the pilot of the first successful nonstop flight in either direction between New York City and Paris. According to the rules, the flight had to be accomplished within five years of the initial prize announcement in May of 1919. When the five-year deadline came and went with no serious contenders, Orteig decided to extend the prize for an additional five years. This time, it attracted a lot of interest, and a lot of attention, from several highly experienced, well-financed competitors.

And then there was our 25-year-old airmail pilot, who, with a $15,000 bank loan, a $1,000 donation from his employer, and about $2,000 from his personal savings, arranged for the construction of a fabric-covered, single-seat, single-engine high-wing monoplane, which he named the Spirit of St. Louis.

You know how the story turned out, with the heavily-loaded aircraft barely making it off the muddy, rain-soaked runway in New York, and with Lindbergh spending the next 33.5 hours fighting fatigue, icing, and fog, and navigating by the stars (when he could see them), but eventually landing successfully in Paris, where he was greeted by 150,000 spectators, who reportedly stormed the field, dragged Lindberg out of the cockpit, and then carried him around on their shoulders for about half an hour. Lindbergh finally had to be “rescued” from the crowd by a group of French military fliers, soldiers, and police.

It must have been quite an exciting event. Certainly something to celebrate. But did you know that before Lindbergh took to the air, six well-known aviators had died in their own attempts to win the prize? Eight months earlier, a French flying ace had crashed and burned on takeoff from Roosevelt Field, New York, when the landing gear on his three-engine biplane collapsed, killing his two crewmembers. About a month prior to Lindbergh’s flight, two U.S. Navy flyers were also killed in a takeoff accident at Langley Field, Virginia, during flight tests of their aircraft. And two weeks later, two French war heroes left Paris on a westbound flight attempt, but contact was lost after crossing the coast of Ireland, and they were never heard from again. I wonder what the reaction would have been if there had been that many fatal accidents in response to a modern-day prize offering, such as the Ansari XPrize? How would the press have responded? How about the Congress? The general public? Or the FAA?

Lindbergh was a very special individual. In addition to being an aviator, he was also an author, an inventor, and an explorer. He was truly a person of vision, courage, and persistence who was able to accomplish some amazing things. He made a difference.

As I work with the many talented and highly motivated folks in our industry, as I listen to the plans that you have, and the work that you are doing, it occurs to me that there are a number of people in this room here today who are also demonstrating their vision, their courage, and their persistence, and who are accomplishing some amazing things. Without a doubt, you too are making a difference.

But what I find truly exciting is that we seem to be reaching a critical mass right now in commercial space transportation, that the pace of progress seems to be accelerating, and that we appear to be on the threshold of some truly transformational changes in our nation’s space program.

Just think about what we are likely to see this year, in 2013:

  • SpaceX flying several cargo missions to the ISS, the first Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg AFB, several Grasshopper test launches, and the arrival of the Falcon heavy hardware at Vandenberg.
  • Orbital conducting the first launches of its new Antares rocket and its Cygnus spacecraft, and becoming the second private company with the capability to deliver cargo to the ISS.
  • Scaled Composites completing the first rocket-powered test launches of SpaceShipTwo.
  •  XCOR Aerospace accomplishing the first flights of the Lynx.
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation conducting autonomous approach and landing tests of its DreamChaser spacecraft.
  • Boeing continuing to mature the design of its CST-100 spacecraft as part of NASA’s CCiCAP program.
  • UpAerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, and Masten Space Systems conducting suborbital launches as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.
  • Lots of licenses. We’ve actually got a stack of applications back at the office that we’ve been working on. You see, back in December, when it looked like Congress might not extend the current indemnification regime, several launch operators decided to get their paperwork turned in so that they could make sure they would be covered. So now we’ve got to make licensing determination decisions for several different systems before the 180-day clock runs out in June.
  •  Human spaceflight. As directed by Congress, we’ve been talking with industry about what kind of guidelines might be helpful and appropriate, recognizing that we won’t be issuing any actual regulations until at least October of 2015.
  • Research. Right now, are in the process of signing up universities, associations, and private companies to be Affiliate Members of our Commercial Space Transportation Center of Excellence, to leverage our efforts, and to share the results of the fantastic commercial space-related research that is already underway.

So it’s going to be a busy year. If only half of those plans are able to be completed successfully, I think it is fair to say that it will be a banner year for commercial space transportation.

And what about after that? Based on what we know today, if we look ahead a little bit, at what will likely have been accomplished by 2018, it is really mind-boggling:

  • As you know, there are currently 8 FAA-licensed spaceports. And over the last several months, we have gotten serious inquiries from governors, senators, congressmen, and local officials from a number of different locations that have expressed their interest and their intention to establish commercial spaceports. Examples include Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. I don’t know if all of them will follow through, but I think it is highly likely that at least a couple of them will push ahead with the application process and make something happen.
  • Next year, in 2014, we'll have an FAA-licensed test launch of NASA's Orion spacecraft using a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket.
  •  Within just a couple of years, I would expect to see regular and frequent suborbital space tourism flights by multiple launch operators.
  • In 2015, a Bigelow module is scheduled to be launched into orbit and attached to the ISS.
  • Shortly thereafter, I anticipate seeing one or more free-flying commercial space station complexes.
  • By the end of 2015, we may see commercial rovers roaming the lunar surface and sending back high definition video in response to the Google Lunar XPrize.
  • By 2017, NASA hopes to be buying commercial crew transportation services to take its astronauts to and from the ISS.
  • And by 2018, we could be beginning test flights of what will be the world’s largest aircraft as part of the StratoLaunch program.

Again, all of those things may not happen in the next 5 years, but if some of them do, it is really going to be exciting around here. And if you happen to be in Washington in February of 2018, make sure to stop by the 21st Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference, and we’ll tell you all about it.

Thanks again for being part of this very special event. We really appreciate both your attendance, and your active participation!