Brett Alexander

Executive Director for Space Prizes at the X Prize Foundation and President of the Personal Spaceflight Federation

After leaving the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2005, Brett Alexander dove headlong into the world of space entrepreneurs, working for a disparate collection of risk takers who are trying to open the space frontier to the public at large.

Today, like a lot of his colleagues, Alexander wears a lot of hats. First, he is executive director for space prizes at the X Prize Foundation. He also is president of the Personal Spaceflight Federation, an industry association focused on commercial human spaceflight. And finally, he is a senior advisor to Transformational Space Corp.

As a young man, Alexander wanted to be an astronaut, but it was not to be. Instead, he became an engineer, a career that eventually would lead to the White House. He worked on space policy issues for both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush as senior policy analyst for space issues at Office of Science and Technology Policy. While there, he helped write the current National Space Policy and the Vision for Space Exploration. Before moving to the White House, Alexander worked in Moscow and in Washington for Anser on Russian-American space cooperation. 

Today, he moves back and forth between espousing the value of prizes as a spur to innovation and helping to run the Personal Spaceflight Federation, which has more than 20 member companies, including four spaceports and a range of companies who do everything from build space habitats to train commercial space travelers. He spoke recently in his office a few blocks from the White House with Space News staff writer Colin Clark.

The federation is relatively young body. What are its main goals at this point?

No. 1 is to work with Congress and the White House political structure to make sure that the statutory framework, the law, is appropriate for an emerging industry like commercial human spaceflight. We believe that the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which set up the current regulatory regime, is the appropriate regime, and that the current law and regulatory framework are right.

The second is to work with the regulatory agencies, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in particular, on regulation for commercial human spaceflight but also other agencies like the State Department on arms export issues.

What other priorities do you have this year?

We’re focused on state liability issues, liability protection waivers and informed consent in those states where launches are likely to take place.

Virginia passed a liability protection law in 2007. How many other states have passed laws or are in the process of passing them?

Virginia is the only one that’s passed a law. The Personal Spaceflight Federation put together a model state law that was modeled after the Virginia one. And we’re working with a number of states on getting that introduced in those states. But nothing has passed in any other state yet.

What are the Virginia legislation’s main strengths?

That bill was modeled after the idea that once a case gets referred to a court then the judge ought to look at the law and say ‘There is immunity, therefore, the case is dismissed.’ Other approaches in other states have taken an approach where they assume [that if] a dispute is going to get into court and be in court, there are things you must show to demonstrate you acted in good faith and that there was informed consent of the customer as required by federal law.

What are your goals on Capitol Hill this year?

NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program is very important to our members. COTS is an example of government finding or enabling a capability in the private sector that it needs to fulfill its requirements — in this case servicing the international space station. That capability makes it possible for NASA to focus on exploration. It’s about getting people in space.

Is there anything this year that NASA should consider doing to bolster the COTS


They need to look very carefully at exercising the option they call Capability D — delivering a crew to low Earth orbit. They also need to add new awards that are focused on crew capabilities. NASA had to invest money in order to have commercial cargo space transport capabilities at their disposal and they will have to invest money again to get the commercial crew transport capabilities.

A number of your corporate members have international interests. Is your organization working to resolve some of the arms export licensing issues faced by the entrepreneurial space industry?

The International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, are a concern for everybody in the space business — even if you are focused on a U.S. domestic only capability or even if you want to do suborbital human spaceflight and build all of your hardware in the United States. You still want to sell to customers from around the world, so a wide array of issues like astronaut training are going to be of concern to you. We’ve been working with the Coalition for Security and Competitiveness; we’re part of that. And we would like to see a lot of changes come to ITAR. That being said, we’re not going to change ITAR all by ourselves, so we need to be part of a broader coalition.

The personal spaceflight industry is very new in some ways. When you go up on Capitol Hill, how do you explain what your members do?

The first thing we try to say is that this is an emerging market that doesn’t yet exist in a large way, and we can suffocate that market if we don’t do things right.

They understand that. The goal for everybody is to get this to where aviation is today. That’s going to take a long time. If we can get it to where aviation was 50 years ago, over the next 10 or 20 years, we’ll be in great shape. And I think they understand that to do that, people have to be able to assume that risk themselves through informed consent. They need to understand from the operator what the risks are that they are going to face. When they sign on the dotted line that should mean: ‘I do understand this and I’m willing to take that risk.’

If Congress is able to pass a NASA authorization act this year, what kind of things would you like to see in it?

There are a lot of things in the 2008 NASA authorization act that we would like to see, for example, continued authorization for COTS, with a particular emphasis on crew transport capabilities for the human spaceflight element, and new services such as parabolic flights, suborbital flights, orbital crew transport and orbital habitats.

What other groups are you working with to get your message out?

We’ve also hit a number of presidential campaigns to make them aware of the importance of the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry.

What responses have you gotten?

I’m surprised that space policy has come up so early in the U.S. presidential campaign and certainly in a political context where they have talked back and forth about these issues a bit. I’m glad that we engaged early and helped educate these folks. 

I don’t know how it translates from campaign to actual administration, but there is a particular resonance on entrepreneurship, innovation and not business as usual. That has really resonated with both the [Sen. Hillary] Clinton [D-N.Y.] and the [Sen. Barack] Obama [D-Ill.] campaigns.

Has Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign voiced any views on the future of the space industry or the future of commercial human spaceflight?

Not to my knowledge, and I’m not the best expert, having had less contact with them so far. [Former New York City Major Rudy] Giuliani had an editorial in Florida Today about COTS.