A Rebirth in Innovation

Former Acting Administrator, Daniel K. Elwell (February 2018–August 09, 2019)

Thank you, Mike. Thank you all for coming and focusing our attention on what promises to be one of our nation’s greatest achievements.

Commercial space has triggered, I believe, a rebirth in the interest not just of what lies on the edges of our atmosphere, but of creativity itself. This group—the people here in this room—are the catalysts for what is very clearly the dawn of a new generation. A new generation for space transportation.  A new generation for exploration. A new generation for innovation.

And without question, this industry has given birth to a new generation of commerce. Trade routes started on land—moved to the sea—then to the sky. And now, they’re set firmly on the final frontier. It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 set down at Tranquility Base.  A lot has happened.  A lot continues to happen.  

This, of course, comes as absolutely no surprise — especially to all of you — given what’s taken place since the last time we spoke. Since October 2018, the numbers speak volumes: 21 launches and 1 reentry. Dozens of payloads launched.

Virgin Galactic launched in December and February with five commercial astronauts.  That included Beth Moses, the first female commercial astronaut in history. Falcon Heavy had its first commercial launch in April. The FAA supported not one, not two, but three commercial launches in less than 72 hours earlier this month. One of them took place half a world away—in New Zealand.

But the most important thing that happened since we last spoke is … nothing. No fatalities.  No missions delayed because of licensing.

This Administration said that government needed to hold the door open for innovators. I think we have. Vice President Pence and Secretary Chao are enthusiastic about commercial space, but they’re more excited about being a catalyst for innovation. I can see this group is capitalizing on that. We’re making the most of it as well. We’ve got a new Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation—Brigadier General Wayne Monteith.  We welcomed him aboard in January—right in the middle of the shutdown. Let’s just say he’s not afraid of uncertainty.

His arrival may have been inauspicious, but Wayne has come at the right time. The proposed streamlined launch and reentry rule was published in draft form in March and posted to the Federal Register in mid-April with the comment period set at 60 days.

We’ve received dozens of comments so far. Almost all have asked that the comment period be extended. No exaggeration there: almost every single comment made that point. And let me just say…we heard you.

Administratively, the recent FAA Reauthorization called for us to stand up an Office of Spaceports within the Office of Commercial Space.  I’m pleased to report it’s up. The office will act as the central point of contact for all spaceport activities. Congress also mandated that we consult with industry and our government partners — and that’s well underway.

Additionally, the Spaceports Categorization and the Airspace Access ARCs have made considerable progress. We expect a final report from the Airspace Access ARC any day now. The Spaceports ARC sent us their recommendations and while a specific categorization scheme was not identified, they provided a lot of food for thought.  I know that Wayne is actively working through these recommendations with his counterparts throughout the FAA.  

As the Secretary announced last month, AST is reorganizing. The licensing workload is increasing substantially.  We need to be positioned to meet the expectations of performance based rules. So, we‘ve got to change the way we work to meet that challenge in the most efficient and effective manner.

For your part, COMSTAC has also been busy. I understand you’ve been out to the FAA’s Command Center in Warrenton to learn more about how Collaborative Decision Making works and how it might be applied to the commercial space transportation industry. CDM proved to be a game-changer for commercial aviation. A system that was once plagued with delays and scheduling hijinks now has evolved into a shared responsibility for efficiency. The carriers recognize that there’s money to be made for all when everyone is working together. What everyone learned—no surprise to me—is that safety and efficiency go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.

This kind of forward-leaning, proactive attention will help keep the commercial space industry safe now and for years to come.

I also understand that you saw our Space Data Integrator project.  Here, too, we are looking at ways in which we can accelerate these kind of innovations.  We don’t just want to integrate commercial space operations into the NAS more quickly and efficiently:  we need to.  We don’t plan to do this alone. Count on us engaging you in these deliberations.

That said, questions remain.

Last time I was here I suggested your industry look to CDM as a means for increasing safety industry wide. You’ve taken the first step. But that begs other questions. Notably – what’s next? How might CDM work for commercial space? Is it even a fit at all? If not, what other ways can firms in this highly-competitive and innovative industry work together to protect public safety?

Additionally, I know you are all very interested in export control. While this is not technically in our lane, FAA is happy to host these discussions. You have my commitment that the FAA intends to continue to advocate for the U.S. commercial space transportation industry with our colleagues across the globe. As a matter of fact, I am heading to the Paris Air Show in a couple of weeks.  I’ll be participating in a panel on commercial space transportation with the specific intention to let them know we’re making great strides.  I love that I have such a good story to tell.  We look forward to working with all of you and our interagency partners to maintain US competitiveness in this critical industry.

I’ll close in the same way I closed my last speech to COMSTAC, and for those who’ve heard me in other venues, the way I close most remarks.

Safety. It bears repeating. If safety is not the hinge on which your company turns, you will not survive. The safest businesses—in the long run—are the most profitable. When you cut corners, you’re actually cutting profits. It might not catch up with you right away, but make no mistake, it will, and it will do so in spectacular fashion. There’s no way around this. Safety has to be the underpinning for everything you do. This industry can ill afford the barnstorming reputation that beset aviation a hundred years ago.

The flying public won’t stand for it, because aviation safety is a given.

Today it’s a commercial airline flight to Albuquerque. Tomorrow it will be a commercial space flight in low earth orbit —either way…passengers will expect the same level of safety. But, I think this industry is up to the task. Yours is not a countdown to liftoff, it is a countdown to safety.

And from where I stand, you are well on the way. Thanks.