Patti Grace Smith
Patricia Grace Smith discusses commercial space at the 2014 Future in Review Conference. Smith played a major role in shaping the commercial space transportation industry during her time at the FAA. Credit: Future in Review

WASHINGTON — Patricia Grace Smith, a former head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space transportation office who helped foster the growth of the industry, unexpectedly passed away June 5.

Smith had been battling pancreatic cancer for about a year, according to those familiar with her passing. Her death took the industry by surprise, as she had not widely shared her diagnosis, and appeared in good health at events as recently as April.

Smith spent 28 years in government service, the last 11 of which she served as the associate administrator for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation before retiring in early 2008. Smith took the job shortly after the office, which previously was an independent organization within the Department of Transportation, was subsumed within the FAA.

“Patti was the first real FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation,” said Jim Muncy, principal of space policy consultancy PoliSpace. Smith, he said, had to work to win support for her small office within the much larger FAA hierarchy. “The rest of the FAA didn’t always think much of their new spacey colleagues,” he recalled, “but they grew to respect Patti’s tireless advocacy of the future of U.S. commercial space transportation.”

Smith “made huge contributions to establishing the office’s legitimacy and fostering effective relationships with all pertinent stakeholders,” said Courtney Stadd, who was director of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation in the mid-1980s. He was among those shocked by her passing. “I just saw Patti a couple of months ago and outwardly seemed her usual wonderful self.”

“Those of us that had the privilege to know or work with Patti know how special of a person she was. Her leadership at the FAA helped transform our industry,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group.

Smith ran the office, also known by the acronym AST, during a time of transition for the U.S. commercial space transportation industry, marked by the rise of entrepreneurial ventures in both orbital and suborbital spaceflight that are today widely known as “NewSpace.” Those ventures placed regulatory demands on the FAA as they sought to perform activities, such as reentries and licensing of inland spaceports, not anticipated by existing laws and regulations.

Muncy praised Smith for leading the development of new regulations in 1999 covering the reentry of reusable launch vehicles, as well as new regulations in 2005 covering commercial human spaceflight. He also credited her with leading work on a compromise definition of a suborbital rocket that was later codified into the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004.

That definition of suborbital rocket was critical since there was a debate at the time whether such vehicles, like Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, should be regulated by Smith’s office or by the FAA’s aviation arm, which many in the spaceflight field feared would have resulted in far more stringent regulations that would have stifled the industry’s growth.

The compromise definition kept suborbital rockets within AST’s oversight. Smith’s work, Muncy said, “enabled the Ansari X Prize contest to lead to a real industry, instead of just an experimental aircraft.”

Smith remained active in the industry after retiring from the FAA, working as a consultant for several companies, including Virgin Galactic. She also served chair of the commercial space committee of NASA Advisory Council for several years. At the time of her death, she was the vice-chair of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Academies.

Prior to leading AST, Smith worked for the Department of Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission, as well as several broadcasting companies. She earned a B.A. in English from Tuskegee University.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...