Boarding the Commercial Space Bus
Profile | Eric Stallmer
President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation
For more than a decade, Eric Stallmer had been the head of government relations for Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI), the face of the company in Washington. So it took many people by surprise last summer when Stallmer announced he was leaving AGI to take over as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an association of 50 businesses and organizations involved with various aspects of the entrepreneurial, or newspace, industry.
Stallmer says he was attracted by a “wonderful opportunity” to take the helm of an organization during a dynamic time for the industry, with many companies actively developing everything from small satellites and suborbital launch vehicles to spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Those companies have made significant progress, but have also suffered from delays and setbacks.
It was also an opportunity for Stallmer to return to this industry: Prior to joining AGI he was president of the Space Transportation Association during another era filled with space launch startups and companies planning constellations of hundreds of communications satellites. He believes that this new wave of such ventures is different, citing the greater technological capabilities of the companies in the field, as well as a surge of outside investment into those companies.
CSF, though, does face its share of challenges. The organization is trying to win support for the first major update to the Commercial Space Launch Act in more than a decade, one that may address issues including launch indemnification and the regulatory regime for commercial human spaceflight. The organization also wants to ensure full funding for key government programs, like NASA’s commercial crew effort and the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office. CSF is also keeping an eye on international regulatory issues and how they could influence, or be influenced by, activities in the United States.
Stallmer spoke recently with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust at CSF’s Washington offices.
What brought you to CSF?
The time was right. I loved my time at AGI, but after over a decade you want to see what else is out there. This was a wonderful opportunity for me in an industry that I just saw as the future. With so many interesting companies, and the growth of the industry, it really excited me. It was a bus that I definitely wanted to get on.
What do you consider to be your role as CSF president?
I’ve had an opportunity over the past six months to go out and see a lot of our companies, the folks that are building things. My mission is to get that message out to everyone, and to be a spokesperson for the commercial sector, because I think it’s really exciting and not enough people know where we are in space. CSF is going to be the voice of the commercial space industry.
Have you visited all the member companies now?
I can’t say all, but I’ve hit about three quarters of them so far. I’ve met with all our members at our meetings.
Is there a challenge to being the spokesman of the industry when there are companies out there who are not CSF members?
No. There are common values and goals that companies have. Certainly we don’t have every commercial company as a member, and we never will. Some people aren’t joiners. But I think we speak to the common goals and the common themes of where the commercial sector is going. We’re not trying to exclude anyone. In the next year we’ll have great growth in the organization.
How soon do you expect to sign up more members?
We have a few in the near term that we’ll be able to announce, and there’s a lot of other interest. I think there’s a wait-and-see attitude from some about what direction the organization is going, and I think people are pleasantly surprised at the direction we are going and the influence that we have.
What is the direction of the CSF?
It’s continuing the path that has been set for public-private partnerships, which is a great thing. I support having the commercial sector be the workhorse in low Earth orbit, such as resupply of cargo and crew for the International Space Station. But there are a lot of other innovative things also going on. One of our new companies is Planet Labs. We’re thrilled about the opportunities they have. It’s a great, innovative new company.
Do you have any particular goals or objectives for CSF this year?
Our biggest goal is passing a commercial space launch act. There’s a lot of key provisions in there that are of great interest to our members, and the industry as a whole. We’re working really well with both committees, in the Senate and the House, and they’re listening to our suggestions.
One of those key issues is the so-called “learning period” that limits commercial human spaceflight regulation, currently scheduled to expire in October. What is CSF’s position there?
We feel an indefinite learning period would be ideal, but an eight- to 10-year extension would be a fine compromise. It would let industry test these vehicles and get data.
There’s been discussion of industry-consensus standards as one long-term solution to that issue. Is that something CSF supports?
Absolutely. We’re working hard to develop industry standards. As you can imagine, writing and finding consensus on standards is challenging, but as an organization we’ve developed a handful of standards and we’re currently working on a few others. We have partnerships with other organizations on developing standards. There’s a pretty good partnership between us and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation on developing these standards for the industry. It’s not an easy task.
Are you also seeking an extension for third-party launch indemnification?
Yes. I think launch indemnification should really be a no-brainer. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s an easy thing to do. There’s minimal or no cost to the government, since the onus is on the companies to provide insurance. It just makes the U.S. stay competitive with international launch providers. It’s an easy thing and it shouldn’t be an issue. I hope they extend it as long as possible.
You recently spoke at an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) conference on commercial spaceflight. How do you see U.S. regulations fitting into a broader international picture?
There are organizations out there that really want to regulate the industry in such a way that does not give much say to those it would affect. They may be going a little too far in trying to impose international safety standards that would apply to U.S. companies that are doing the work. But a lot of the people there did look to the FAA and the U.S. model as being really at the forefront of regulatory policy as we develop this industry.
Do you think ICAO wants to branch out from aviation into space?
I think they want to be part of the discussion, and they should be. ICAO does a great job in the civil aviation area. I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand what is being developed. For people to see we are taking the safest approach possible is really one of the paramount things for us as an industry. You’re not going to have a commercial business if you’re not safe.
Is there a role for CSF to play on an international scale, given the organization is seen as U.S.-centric?
There is. I foresee us eventually having a voice internationally. We have a couple international members now. As the industry grows, we’ll grow with it. But the U.S. continues to be the leading voice in the commercial space sector. We want to share best practices globally.
One of the biggest debates in recent years has been funding for NASA’s commercial crew program. Is that debate changing now that Boeing and SpaceX have contracts?
I think that battle has subsided. Getting funding for anything is challenging, and everyone has to make their case. But commercial is the way we’re going. Crew is going to be commercial. It’s not coincidental that the priority for commercial crew has been elevated because of the geopolitical situation with Russia. The U.S. should have its own organic transportation system to bring U.S. astronauts into space. That might be one of the easiest decisions that Congress can make. We need U.S. launch capability to the International Space Station as soon as possible.
You don’t see this as a fight between commercial crew and the Space Launch System, as some have in the past?
A lot of people try to pit the two against each other, but it’s really apples and oranges. We don’t see a fight there. We want to do as much as we can in low Earth orbit, and even beyond low Earth orbit there’s going to be a large role for the commercial sector to play.
What other policy issues are you working on?
We’re working with the State Department on export controls. They’ve been moving in the right direction, but there’s a lot more work to be done. We’re also looking at the FAA workforce. Their manifest is only going to grow, and they need to be rightsized, in terms of budget and personnel.
We’ve had great conversations with the space policy people at the Defense Department. We’d like to see them make more commercial use. It’s a missed opportunity for the DoD, and I think they’re starting to see the value of a lot of these commercial applications. I think that’s an area we need to focus on a little.
I’m concerned in some areas that the DoD is working on programs that the commercial sector is moving forward on, in innovative launch systems and in software. But the DoD is doing things far better now than five years ago, and I think they’re making steps forward.
Outside of policy, what else is CSF working on?
We’re excited companies are out there building and doing things. To get the message out about the great things these companies are doing is important. There’s a lot of innovation going on that’s really being underreported. So that’s our mission: to expose these companies, and by exposing them, it’s going to help grow the industry.
You’re seeing a trend of huge private sector investment in commercial space companies. Investors are afraid they’ll miss the next great thing, and I’m here to tell them, “Don’t worry, there are a lot of great things in the pipeline.”
We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about satellite constellations and reusable launch vehicles. It’s starting to sound like the 1990s. What is different now?
It’s fundamentally different. The capabilities of companies are much greater. We have a robust suborbital industry, but also an orbital launch industry that’s going to be able to support these satellite companies. It’s convincing companies there’s a market there. Not all of the companies will pan out, but they never do in any industry. I think we are so much further along than the grandiose plans of the mid-1990s.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities and biggest threats to the commercial space industry over the next year or so?
I would not say it’s as strong as a “threat,” but my concern would be congressional inactivity on key pieces of legislation. NASA funding is one, as it would impact the commercial crew and commercial cargo programs. The commercial space launch act has to be passed this year. It’s too great of an opportunity to miss. It’s a challenge, but I do believe it will happen.
In terms of opportunities, I think this is a year or 18 months where you’re going to see new vehicles coming on line or entering the testing phase. I don’t think marketing is driving this any more. I think the next 18 months is going to be really exciting for our industry. I think there’s going to be a lot of innovative breakthroughs.
I’m loving the job, and I couldn’t find a better time to be in this industry.