Head of FAA commercial space office to retire

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation will retire in March after nearly a decade in the job.

George Nield confirmed in an interview during the 45th Space Congress here Feb. 27 that he plans to retire from the FAA at the end of March. Nield didn’t give a specific reason for retiring now, other than that he felt this was a good time to do so. He added he planned to remain involved with the industry and would continue to serve on NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

Nield joined the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, also known by the designation AST, in 2003 as deputy associate administrator. He was named associate administrator in May 2008 after the retirement of Patti Grace Smith. Nield earlier in his career worked for Orbital Sciences Corporation, NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

Nield’s office oversees commercial launch activity in the United States and by American companies regardless of location, licensing launches and spaceports to protect the safety of the uninvolved public. AST also has a mandate to encourage, facilitate and promote the U.S. commercial launch industry.

In recent months, Nield has advocated for regulatory reform efforts to streamline the launch licensing process. Vice President Mike Pence, at the first National Space Council meeting in October, requested a 45-day review of the regulatory framework for commercial space. However, Nield said even before the Council meeting he was seeking ideas for reforms that could reduce the burden on AST given growing commercial launch activity.

“The great thing about tackling this assignment is that we are totally on board: no arm-twisting required,” his said in a talk at the Space Congress. His office had already been meeting with companies as well as industry groups like the Commercial Spaceflight Federation on ideas for regulatory reform, which were incorporated into what the FAA proposed to the Council.

Some of the ideas his office put forward, such as allowing a single launch license to be used for vehicles launching from multiple locations, were accepted by the Council at its most recent meeting Feb. 21 at the Kennedy Space Center.

“The key element of the overall streamlining effort will be to implement a 21st century licensing process that will be based on an updated and consolidated set of regulations with requirements that are performance-based, rather than prescriptive,” he said. In addition to licensing reforms to allow unlimited launches and reentries for a vehicle from multiple sites, it would also shorten the review time for license applications from “experienced” companies.

Nield has also, in recent years, advocated that AST take on the role of overseeing “non-traditional” commercial space activities that are not currently under the jurisdiction of the FAA or other agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission or, for remote sensing missions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Such oversight, he and others in industry have argued, is needed to ensure the United States complies with provisions in Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty that require “authorization and continuing supervision” of space activities. It would eliminate any regulatory uncertainty for activities ranging from satellite servicing to commercial lunar landers.

Nield said that AST was best suited to perform those roles, and that such oversight could be based on the payload review it already performs as part of the launch licensing process. Earlier proposals for concepts like “mission authorization” would grant that authority to AST.

However, at the National Space Council meeting, members approved a recommendation that would appear to give that authority to the Office of Space Commerce within the Department of Commerce as part of a consolidation of “all commercial space regulatory functions” excluding launch and reentry. A House bill, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, also proposed to give that authority to the Office of Space Commerce.

In his speech here, Nield remained optimistic about the long-term future of commercial space, noting the increase in launch activity and the ongoing development of several suborbital and orbital crewed spacecraft that will be flying in the next 12 to 18 months.

For most of the history of spaceflight, he said, “it’s been the government that’s been responsible for planning, developing and executing our space programs. Going forward, though, that is no longer necessarily going to be the case. That’s because private industry will be playing an increasingly important role in our space activities.”