T he X Prize Cup in October was quite a show . I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such an extensive variety of rockets being displayed, demonstrated or launched, all in one location. There was a rocket-powered bicycle, a rocket truck, several high-power amateur rockets and a number of static engine firings. Probably my favorite part of the show was the Lunar Lander Challenge that featured some amazing flights by Armadillo Aerospace’s vehicle, nicknamed Pixel.

The hardware was fascinating. The crowds were extremely enthusiastic, especially the kids. And you couldn’t help but smile as you stood out on the tarmac, shielding your eyes from the sun, as you heard, and then felt, the roar of those powerful rocket engines when the vehicles took flight.

As I reflected on how well things went, I thought about how much progress we’ve made on rockets and safety. Those of us in commercial space transportation appreciate the risky nature of this business, but we make no compromises on safety. Whether at the X Prize Cup or anywhere else throughout the commercial space world, safety is our top priority. That is one of the key reasons the industry is continuing to progress, and why our future is looking so bright right now.

Since the last Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (Comstac) meeting in May, there have been a number of announcements made and milestones achieved:

  • There have been three licensed launches conducted successfully: the Galaxy 16 and KoreaSat missions by Sea Launch, and the GOES N weather satellite, which was put into orbit by a Delta 4 . That makes a total of 179 licensed launches, without any fatalities, serious injuries, or property damage to the uninvolved public — a fantastic safety record and one that we plan to keep intact.
  • Space Adventures announced July 21 an agreement with the Russians to offer customers the opportunity to participate in a space walk during future visits to the international space station for a mere $15 million — a ir fare and other transportation costs not included.
  • Bigelow Aerospace has been working on developing inflatable space habitats. Bigelow’s first subscale test article, known as Genesis 1 , was launched July 12. Based on that very successful mission, Bigelow recently announced plans to launch a three-person space station named Sundancer sometime in late 2009 or early 2010. Bigelow also announced an agreement with Lockheed Martin to study the use of the Atlas 5 as a potential launch vehicle for its s pace s tation modules and for the prospective space tourists who may want to visit them.
  • AirLaunch LLC successfully conducted the drop test July 26 of a 72,000 pound (32,659 kilogram) simulated booster from a C-17, setting a record for the largest single object to be dropped from the aircraft.
  • In August, Futron Corp. updated its landmark study on Suborbital Space Tourism Demand. Despite the fact that Futron assumed a higher cost per ticket than they did in their earlier study, the forecast for 2021 calls for more than 13,000 passengers to fly each year.
  • Virgin Galactic unveiled Sept. 28 a full-scale mockup of the futuristic SpaceShipTwo cabin in New York. Sir Richard Branson was among those demonstrating the reclining seats. The very same day, formation of the Benson Space Co. was announced, dedicated, as Jim Benson said, to “creating the possibility that anyone who wants to go into space will be able to … safely and affordably.”
  • Also in September, Anousheh Ansari became the fourth paying passenger to fly to orbit .
  • The Federal Trade Commission gave its approval Oct. 3 for Boeing and Lockheed Martin to form the United Launch Alliance. While this has been a pretty busy time for our industry, those of us in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) also have been quite busy.

In June we issued the sixth license for a non-federal commercial launch site operator, a spaceport license, to the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority. The Burns Flat site is the second inland launch site licensed by the FAA , and the license is good for five years.

The FAA published Aug. 15 the final rule on safety approvals. Safety approvals, which are strictly voluntary, offer the developers of systems, subsystems, training programs and the like an opportunity to have their hardware, software or processes reviewed and approved by the government. Such an approval may offer significant benefits when trying to attract new business. They also offer vehicle operators a chance to streamline launch license applications, since any systems that already have received safety approvals will not need to be re-evaluated during the application process.

After several iterations and many years of hard work with our Air Force partners, the FAA issued new launch safety standards Aug. 25 for expendable launch vehicles. They are designed to create consistent, integrated launch safety requirements for both military and commercial missions, and will be applicable at both federal and non-federal launch sites. As a result, all of the relevant requirements are now accessible in a single, unified document that will codify existing practices while reducing uncertainty for new operators about the costs to achieve compliance.

On Sept. 15, the FAA issued the first-ever experimental permit to Blue Origin. Experimental permits were authorized by the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, and were intended to streamline the approval process for testing reusable suborbital rockets. They are good for an unlimited number of launches and were designed to be somewhat analogous to Experimental Airworthiness Certificates in aviation.

This summer also brought the announcement of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) winners. The COTS program, in which the FAA participated as advisors and consultants during the selection process, could very well mark a key turning point in the history of commercial space transportation. NASA has given industry both a huge challenge and a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate its ability to deliver crew and cargo to the international space station in a safe and economical manner. Congratulations to Rocketplane-Kistler and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. on their selection.

In the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, Congress directed AST to examine the existing liability risk sharing regime and possible revisions. We asked the Aerospace Corp. to take an in-depth look at this, ask questions, analyze what they heard and report back. That report is now complete. Sometimes the toughest part of the space business isn’t the rocket science; it’s finding the money to do the rocket science. As part of our continuing efforts to encourage, facilitate and promote the commercial space transportation industry, and in response to previous requests by Comstac members and others, we have put together a special booklet. “Funding Resources for Launch Vehicle and Spaceport Technology Research and Development” is intended to help launch vehicle developers and launch site operators identify potential sources of government and private-sector funding to support their efforts. Grant opportunities are grouped by type of funding: federal, state, and foundation. The Venture Capital Resources section offers information on venture capital search services and any associated fees.

Clearly the pace is picking up in the world of commercial space flight. A lthough there’s rarely a single explanation for anything, Wernher von Braun may have come close to explaining why things are happening faster in space when he spoke about the discovery of Antarctica. He said not very many people went there until “enabling technology” made it practical. That technology was the airplane.

Based on a few slightly different technologies, in combination with a few parts of inspiration and a little old fashioned hard work and perseverance, some modern enablers are on the verge of making space a much busier place than it’s ever been before.

George C. Nield is deputy associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. This commentary has been excerpted from his Oct. 25 speech to the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (Comstac) in Washington.