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Speech – "Unleashing the Power of Commercial Space Transportation"

"Unleashing the Power of Commercial Space Transportation"
Stephen M. Dickson, Washington, DC
December 3, 2019

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Space Summit


Remarks As Delivered

Hello everyone.. It’s great to be here representing the FAA at the second annual U.S. Chamber of Commerce Space Summit. The title of your event—Launch: The Space Economy, is very appropriate for me considering my short time in this job. I’ve been learning so much, so fast, and in so many locations around the world for the past three months that sometimes it feels like I’ve been launched on a rocket.  

It’s been an exhilarating and fascinating ride though. I just came back from the Dubai Air Show, where I met officials with the Dubai-based Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, which builds and operates Earth observation satellites. The Center is part of the broader UAE Space Agency. The UAE is an energetic new participant in human space flight, having sent their first astronaut to the International Space Station in late September for an 8-day mission. Next year, they plan to launch a probe to Mars. Their long-range goal? To eventually colonize the red planet. Talk about a stretch goal!

If that’s not proof of a vibrant and expanding aerospace industry, I’m not sure what is.

Developments like that strengthen my resolve to unleash the power of commercial space transportation by paving the way for easier access to low Earth orbit through the National Airspace System, and doing so safely and efficiently.

The FAA has maximum support for doing this work—it’s a mission that is front and center for the Trump Administration and the Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao. Last year, as you know, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-2, which calls on the FAA to streamline the rules for commercial launch and re-entry while at the same time protecting national security and public safety. The idea in part is to boost the confidence of private industry to invest in commercial space.

Those investments are substantial—and already growing at a fast pace. According to the National Space Council, in the first half of 2019, we saw almost as much investment in space companies as we did in all of 2018. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a total of nearly $25 billion invested in about 500 space companies, most of which are American. What those dollars are fueling are commercial ventures that could be right out of a science fiction book: space travel and tourism, satellite servicing, orbital debris removal, in-space manufacturing and huge constellations of miniature satellites for global Internet connectivity and other services. I’m sure there are many more brilliant  ideas in the minds of bright entrepreneurs.

And let’s face it – this is not just about commerce. All of this innovation is exciting for America’s youth in a way that the Apollo program was for me and many others when I was a kid a few years ago….Ok, quite a few years ago.

At the Dubai Air Show two weeks ago, I met Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot Al Worden, who was one of my Dad’s West Point classmates—Class of ‘55. I was reminded of how that program was the driving force behind a generation of engineers, scientists and pilots, myself among them. Three of our biggest commercial space innovators—Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson—say the Apollo missions lit the fuse that led to them becoming space entrepreneurs.

Our visions of launching beyond the wild blue yonder into space were based on a black-and-white RCA TV and baritone-voiced anchormen. Today—right from their high def smart phones—kids  see the dashboard camera from a Tesla Roadster that Elon Musk launched atop his Falcon Heavy test rocket and put into orbit around the sun. On social media, they see two 160-foot-tall SpaceX rocket boosters sticking a landing after delivering upper stages to orbit; they see Beth Moses floating free in SpaceShipTwo as the first woman to make a commercial space flight; they see the massive Stratolauncher—the world’s largest aircraft—taking to the skies on its first flight in preparation for dropping boosters at altitude for what they call “airline-style access to space.”

And while us Apollo kids could only imagine what it would be like to go into space one day, today’s youth can actually save their money to buy a ride on a suborbital excursion – which may one day, in the not too distant future, zoom them to anywhere in the world in about 30 minutes.

Or better yet—from my perspective as a potential employer—they can take part in creating and launching an on-orbit experiment on as early as fifth grade. I think such real-time exposure and engagement will pay off some day with a whole new generation of scientists and aerospace engineers.

Modernizing the way we regulate and license commercial space operations will allow all of this to be done more affordably and efficiently, while keeping the focus on our North Star—safety. It’s a tall order, but we have to succeed or we’ll be left behind.

The FAA learned the hard way with the Unmanned Aircraft revolution that innovation and technology wait for no one. In that case, an entirely new industry sprung up practically overnight, and we weren’t ready for it. I’m happy to say the agency has come a long way toward getting caught up on UAS, but we are determined not to let it happen again for other new entrants, commercial space chief among them.

So what do we do?  To start with, we do the crucial work the Administration and the DOT have asked us to do: We rework our launch and reentry licensing regime to streamline regulations for licensing commercial space transportation activities, and we work to more efficiently integrate real-time launch operations with ongoing aviation operations in the National Airspace System.

Eventually, we envision that commercial space will have a modern set of flexible, performance-based regulations that parallel commercial aviation, with vehicle and crew certifications as well as operational approvals, installation of safety management systems, and the associated Just Culture methodologies. But as you know, given the fragile nature of such a nascent industry, the U.S. Congress in 2004 imposed a regulations moratorium on commercial human spaceflight that has been extended several times, and now continues through 2023.

As it is, the FAA has a mandate to protect the public on the ground and aircraft from the surface to 60,000 feet. For the public on the ground, we do this through launch, reentry and spaceport regulations; for aircraft deconfliction, we do it through some less than efficient means. More on that later.

Our regulations require us to license each commercial launch in the U.S. or launches conducted by a U.S. company anywhere in the world. Each license requires the applicant to submit a system safety analysis and a ground safety analysis, detailed documents that prove to the FAA that the intended launch or reentry will not pose an undue threat to the public.

While this way of doing business worked well for a few commercial launches a year—the way it used to be—the pace has picked up to the point where it is quickly becoming impractical. In 2018, the FAA issued a record 35 launch and reentry licenses. The total this year is expected to be similar, but for 2020, we’re on tap for 52 licensed activities, and there’s ample reason to believe the numbers will climb. There are currently 11 licensed spaceports in 8 states around the U.S., many in non-traditional locations, like New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado, and a handful more in the pipeline.

Our Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or NPRM, is the first step in modernizing access to space. The goal is to simplify the licensing process, enable novel operations and reduce costs. One example: the rules would allow companies to use a single FAA license for multiple launches from multiple launch sites.

We closed the public comment period on the NPRM in August, receiving 154 submissions, many of which included very detailed and well thought out comments from industry. Our commercial space team is carefully reviewing all the input, and we are working toward publishing a final rule in the fall of 2020.

One area where the FAA can make significant progress in making launches more efficient from an overall commerce standpoint—without new regulation—is moving to dynamic deconfliction of space vehicles and commercial airliners, using shared data. Today, the FAA uses a manual process to close off relatively large swaths of airspace around launch and reentry corridors for relatively long periods as there is no operational real-time surveillance and communication between the launch providers and FAA air traffic control. Considering the growing number of launches, these impacts will only increase.

The FAA recognizes the issue, and we are working on solutions. Our Space Data Integrator, or SDI, concept is key to providing relief. We currently have a prototype—which we developed in part with data that SpaceX and Blue Origin provided from their launches—that automates the current manual process of transmitting real-time launch and reentry data from the commercial launch provider to the FAA’s Joint Space Operations Group and Air Traffic managers.

At the Command Center, analysts review the information and determine how to modify aircraft hazard areas to reduce the impact to flights in the area. This is the first step in a phased approach to get to the end goal – real-time launch and reentry information that will allow for dynamic rerouting information automatically sent to air traffic controllers and directly to the cockpit – an important capability, especially in launch contingency situations. With dynamic rerouting, we can close and open airspace faster and more efficiently, while keeping safety as our top priority.

The FAA’s Program Management Organization is currently working to operationalize the first stage of SDI—the piece that takes in real time surveillance quality data from the launch providers—by 2022. The next step will be getting the information to controllers, and finally, to pilots.

You can see from the tempo and diversity in launch operations that it’s critical that we get all of this right—there’s too much important and innovative work to be done in space. Consider the payloads on the Electron rocket built by new entrant, Rocket Lab, with its “Running out of Fingers” mission set for launch as soon as Friday out of the Mahia (Muh-hee-ah) Peninsula in New Zealand. The FAA licenses Rocket Lab launches because it’s a U.S. company. Why “Running out of Fingers?” It’s their tenth mission….and as an FYI, they’ve only been launching for two years.

Payloads on the Electron include a thermal isolation material experiment from Hungarian company, ATL; a telecommunications picosatellite that can fit in the palm of your hand, developed by a Spanish company Fossa Systems; and a small satellite built by Tokyo-based ALE Company that aims to create man-made shooting stars by simulating re-entering meteor showers. ALE’s tag line probably won’t surprise you: “Shooting stars, on demand.”

As they say, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried!

But that one mission highlights just a small dose of the massive amount of energy, creativity, and multi-national industry collaboration that commercial space is bringing to the table.

We at the FAA are doing our part to make sure these companies and payloads get the most efficient and safest access to space, while at the same time making sure those on the ground will be able to enjoy their shooting stars, on demand.

Thank you for your time.

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