I gave a presentation to the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that summarized activities both within the industry and inside the
Federal Aviation Administration since the previous COMSTAC meeting. It was a roster of solid achievements, including publication of
the rule on launch safety standards for expendable launch vehicles; granting of
experimental permit; completion of
successful licensed launches; arrival in orbit of
Robert Bigelow’s first subscale habitat
and Anousheh Ansari’s trip to
the space station and
. In short, my remarks last year amounted to a lineup of good outcomes.
But the business of space launches is not an easy one. W
e cannot realistically expect to have all good news all the time. In fact, a time of trying new things can be a trying time in more ways than one.
So to give you a better sense of that challenging environment, I offer
a review of commercial space events since the last COMSTAC meeting in May; and a summary of
roughly the same period between May and October
when just about everything in space was new and none of it was commercial.
Fifty years ago
was an interesting and exciting time – the
International Geophysical Year began during that period, and it sparked a
worldwide scientific effort that would culminate in the first man-made orbiting satellite.
Boeing won a production contract for its BOMARC guided missile. The Air Force showed off its new B-58 Hustler bomber, a Mach 2 powerhouse that, sitting on the runway, looked a lot like a winged rocket on stilts. And
for the first time
an airplane flew coast to coast at supersonic speed, landing in New York 3 hours and 23 minutes after it left California. The pilot – John Glenn – even got his name in the paper.
Of course, even with the resources of the federal government behind them, some
efforts were less successful during that time when modern rocketry was young.
For example, consider the Air Force Thor rocket that flew successfully
20, 1957. It had been locked in a struggle for survival with the Army’s Jupiter rocket. So, for the builders, the successful Thor launch was a homerun –
especially since the three previous launches had been dramatic failures,
described by Time
magazine as “two strikes and a foul tip.”
, the brand new Atlas rocket was having some misadventures of its own. In June of 1957, the first one was launched from Cape Canaveral and
flew for 22 seconds before an engine cut out, and the range safety officer blew the $6 million rocket out of the sky. A week before Sputnik
, the Air Force launched the second Atlas, and the range safety officer again had to push the button. One reporter said, well, at least it was an “awesome 35 seconds” before the rocket disappeared into
“an enormous blob of flame.”
Clearly, things don’t always work out. But
the significance of the results is sometimes best understood
with a little historical perspective. In the aftermath of the first two Atlas launches, the operators understood that there was plenty to learn from the telemetry and the film footage. The same went for Thor and, later, Vanguard and all the others –
An Air Force
colonel summed up the tenor of those
50 years ago with a telling remark. He said: “This is research and development – and that always means more missiles go wrong than right.”
The so-called failure rate world
wide for the first three years of spaceflight was about 51 percent.
Indeed, the things that go right –
as well as the things that don’t –
are all constructive pieces of the same process, the process of moving forward under demanding circumstances. You may not always get the results you were after, but you can always learn from every launch.
And there is always risk.
With that in mind, I
to the events of
the past year
All of us were humbled and saddened by what happened in
Mojave, Calif., in late July. It wasn’t a rocket launch
or even preparations for a launch, but
three very talented and hard-working members of our indus
try gave their lives as they worked to overcome some of the obstacles currently facing us in commercial space transportation. There is no doubt in my mind that the cause of the tragedy will be determined, and that Scaled Composites will be back, stronger, safer
and more innovative than ever. But what happened
serves to remind us that, as the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act states, “spaceflight is inherently risky.”
Since our last COMSTAC meeting, there also have been
trials for other operators.
had a difficult time in coming up with all of the funding it needed
to support its continued participation in NASA’s COTS program, and NASA
has opened up those funds
Regardless of which technical concepts are selected and which business plan strategies are endorsed, it’s clear that NASA’s
with COTS has huge potential: to minimize or even close the impending human spaceflight gap after the retirement of the
shuttle, to save taxpayer dollars, and to energize the nation’s commercial space transportation industry.
of last year’s X Prize Cup,
conducted a number of tests as they prepared to try again.
Some went as planned; at
least one didn’t. A
s a result, the Texel lunar lander is no more. And in spite of several flawless flights and some remarkably quick turnarounds at this year’s event, all of the prize money remains on the table. But the work goes on.
In June, the Bigelow Aerospace module Genesis 2
joined Genesis 1
in orbit. Later in the summer, Bigelow announced that it had accelerated its efforts and
now is moving on directly to the Sundancer program.
And in September
came the announcement of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, inviting private companies from around the world to put a functioning, roaming, broadcasting vehicle on the surface of the
It’s safe to say that’s a stretch goal. But, then
there are no “easy-reach” goals when it comes to spaceflight. As U.S. President John F. Kennedy pointed out, this kind of thing is hard to do and it demands the very best we’ve got.
At the Office of
Commercial Space Transportation (AST), w
both participants and hosts
for the X Prize Cup events held in October
at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Since May, we have had a pair of successful licensed launches. In June we had the COSMO-SkyMed mission, a remote sensing
will be used by the Italians. In September
Boeing Launch Services orbited the DigitalGlobe satellite, built by Ball Aerospace and designed to deliver enhanced imaging services. That makes a total of 183 licensed launches, all conducted without any fatalities, serious injuries
or significant property damage or harm to the uninvolved public.
On June 14 AST issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Amateur Rocket launches. We had found that with the advances in amateur rocketry, our current rule did not adequately reflect current practice, and we wanted to preserve the level of safety associated with the industry.
also are just beginning the process that will lead to the congressionally mandated report on safety issues related to launching humans into space.
In addition, we have
signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Office of Space Commercialization at the Department of Commerce. In a nutshell, the central aim is to foster cooperation to
the interests of the U.S. commercial space sector. We’re happy to work with other agencies of government in this area because we all understand that the United States is far from alone in recognizing the potential of the commercial space industry.
We also have signed
a Memorandum of Cooperation between AST and the FAA Office of Aerospace Medicine, with whom we already have a decade-long history of informal consultation.
The Office of Aerospace Medicine will help AST with medical safety issues connected with physiological training. In turn, we will make sure that Aerospace Medicine is aware of opportunities to contribute their expertise.
We think that this is a good first step as we anticipate a time that
will offer much broader access to spaceflight for the general public.
a month of momentous space anniversaries, and an
anecdote from the Sputnik days
fits our own times, as well.
As the beeping sound of the new Russian satellite came down to Earth, an NBC announcer said
to his radio audience: “Listen now for the sound which forevermore separates the old from the new.”
Half a century later, the sound of free enterprise in commercial space is separating the old from the new again, from a world in space limited to a few,
to a world in space open to many.
The only way to make sure that happens is to do it as safely as possible. That’s the fastest –
in fact, the only —
route to tomorrow.
George C. Nield, PhD, is deputy associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. This commentary has been
adapted from his Oct.
11 speech to the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington.