"Commercial Space Transportation "
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
February 16, 2012

Commercial Space Transportation Conference

Remarks As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, George (Nield). It's a pleasure to be here today for the 15th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference.  I don't have to tell this audience what an amazing and exciting time it is for commercial space transportation.  Together, we are taking some very big steps these days toward achieving the vision expressed by a fellow named Jules Verne back in 1865:

We shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars, with the same facility, rapidity, and certainty as we now make the voyage from Liverpool to New York.

We've been to the moon.  We've sent scientific probes to the planets and the stars.  And with the exciting developments now underway in both commercial space policy and commercial space technology, we are rapidly `certainty" of today's earthbound travel.

Even Jules Verne—whose 1865 comment obviously referred to ocean travel—might not have been able to imagine the kind of air travel that we all take for granted in 2012.  And I'm willing to bet that none of us can fully imagine exactly how commercial space travel will look a mere 50 years from now.  But as another visionary Robert Goddard said, “The dreams of yesterday are the hopes of today and the reality of tomorrow.”  We have to imagine it before we can do it, and that's why events like this conference are so important.  They bring the right people from the right disciplines together not just to imagine and envision, but also to engineer—to consider the how along with the what

When it comes to the how, I think there are some interesting parallels between the development of commercial air transportation and commercial space transportation.  One of them is how the shift from government-funded programs to private sector development began to accelerate right at the 50-year mark.  The Wright Brothers flew in 1903 … and it was in the 1950s that private sector-led commercial development really began to take off.  I think we are seeing the same kind of trajectory in space transportation.  During the first 50 years, governments made the program decisions and provided most, if not all, the necessary funding for research and development, and the framework for vehicle operations. 

But that’s changing.  Not too far in the future, the Federal Government will cease to be a space developer or operator.  Instead, government will be a customer.  And as a customer, the government will buy the transportation services it needs for low-Earth orbit or suborbital space missions.  The market, not government, will determine the number of launches every year.  We will look to commercial space for the delivery of cargo and crew members to low-Earth orbit.  Commercial space will serve independent clients who lease space on a commercial space station.  It will carry scientists who need to fly with their experiments.  It will serve people who have bought tickets to be participants on the ride of a lifetime.  And it will bring economic growth to spaceport communities, just as air transportation brings growth to airport communities.

That’s a big change, and change brings challenges.  One of the challenges from the government-to-private sector shift is the need to develop strong partnerships with other government agencies – and especially with NASA.   It’s an essential partnership.  When it comes to technical expertise and experience in space operations, nobody knows more than NASA.

The FAA’s role is also critical – ensuring safety.  We’ve set the safety bar very high and the commercial air transportation industry has met it.  The FAA wrote the book on regulating for safety, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons in the century since the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk.  We know about setting safety standards … issuing licenses and permits based on those standards… regulating airspace … and establishing the inspection and oversight programs we need to ensure continued operational safety. 

The same will be true for safety in commercial space.  Our approach to commercial space is to develop regulations that promote safety without becoming a hurdle to what commercial space can and will become.  The standard we have set for the FAA, starting with the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, is to be fair, to be reasonable, and to listen. And that's important. We want to be facilitators who help make it happen—safely.

That leads me to another challenge – the speed of change.  It is often difficult to find ways to accommodate speed and enable growth, but without sacrificing safety.   The FAA is ready for innovative approaches and new ways of doing business so we can be responsive to the needs of industry.  But we owe it to everyone to do that while still ensuring public safety.  One tool coming online just as the commercial space sector is accelerating is the Safety Management System, or SMS.  I expect we will rely very heavily on SMS to help us manage and monitor the launch and reentry environments.  That’s critical for safe operations, for industry growth, and also for national security. 

Let me close with an observation and a prediction.  At its own fifty-year mark, commercial air transportation was something like commercial spaceflight is today:  a costly, out-of-the-ordinary activity available to the privileged few.   The infrastructure wasn’t there.  Air transport was government dominated, and we were just learning to do the kind of government/industry consultation, cooperation, and partnership that we take for granted today in the air transportation sector. 

Today’s commercial space launches require involvement from a lot of people in a lot of different organizations.  Everything stops to accommodate a commercial space launch.   That will change.  I am confident that as this industry grows, and as our government/industry partnerships develop to support it, we will be seeing a lot of exciting developments in the next decade – never mind the next 50 years.  

Thank you for partnering with us to help achieve that goal, and for being here today.