Oped: The Lyrics of Persistence

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  Space News Business

Oped: The Lyrics of Persistence

By GEORGE C. NIELD

posted: 27 December 2007
04:35 pm ET










A


bout a




year ago,




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




the first-ever




experimental permit; completion of




three




successful licensed launches; arrival in orbit of




Robert Bigelow’s first subscale habitat




;




and Anousheh Ansari’s trip to




the space station and




return




. 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




two summaries:




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




of 1957














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




Sept.




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.”

Meanwhile




, 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 –




lessons learned.

An Air Force




colonel summed up the tenor of those




times




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




turn




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.





Rocketplane Kistler




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




for competition




.




Regardless of which technical concepts are selected and which business plan strategies are endorsed, it’s clear that NASA’s




overall approach




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.



Armadillo Aerospace,




the




star




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




Moon.

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




e




worked closely




with




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




satellite that




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.





We




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




support




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.





October was




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.