Commercial Space Transportation: A Modern Day Everest?

FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation

In May of 1933, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Their achievement was a significant one, not only because of the challenges involved, but because of the danger. To date, there have been approximately 3,700 ascents since Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic climb, with more than 2,400 people reaching the summit. Over the years, more than 200 climbers have lost their lives attempting to reach that special point, more than 29,000 feet above sea level.

There can be no question that climbing Mount Everest is a risky personal choice. So is riding a rocket into space. Consider the implications for those who choose to go.

Regardless of whether the 21st century spaceflight passenger is riding a somewhat conventional, vertically launched vehicle or some kind of horizontally launched, rocket-powered space plane, passengers will be riding a vessel packed with a volatile mix of carefully processed chemical ingredients, with thousands of interdependent parts and some extremely sophisticated software, all of which must work together in order to allow survival in a hostile environment. All in all, private human spaceflight is like climbing Mount Everest, but with a lot farther to fall.

Not to mention the cost. The most common figure I hear for a suborbital rocket ride is around $200,000. Who can afford that?

Ask the folks who climb Mount Everest. The National Geographic Adventure Magazine says the “semistandard” guided climb is $65,000 per climber, plus, up to another $15,000 for additional items. The climbing permit alone is $25,000. If you add up a few of the “optional” expenses, like round-trip transportation, some Sherpas, extra oxygen bottles, tents, and the always handy satellite phone permits, the cost of the trip could easily total over $200,000.

So why would anybody want to do either of these risky, expensive things? When it comes to commercial human spaceflight, everyone expects that there will be plenty of thrills and chills, lots of once-in-alifetime moments, and perhaps even some modest science.

On the other hand, when Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he climbed Mount Everest, he said, “Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons … you really climb for the hell of it.”

A lot of would-be space passengers might say something along those same lines. It’s unique, exhilarating, a chance you don’t want to let slip by … but, in the end, Sir Edmund’s reason is probably reason enough.

The New Commercial Space Industry

Another question people ask is: “What do you mean ‘commercial space?’ Doesn’t NASA do it all?”

As a NASA astronaut, Dr. Kathy Thornton flew four times on the space shuttle. On STS-61 in December 1993, she was part of the team that repaired the Hubble space telescope and conducted two lengthy space walks in the process. When her career as an astronaut came to an end, she had this to say: “The next time I go into space, I’ll be able to take my family with me.”

There you have the distinction between NASA and commercial spaceflight; two complementary, but, none the less separate and discrete pieces of America’s overall space program.

The next time Dr. Thornton reaches space, it will be because she bought a ticket and boarded a commercially built, commercially launched rocket, flown by a pilot who will not be a government employee. That’s a vital difference.

The commercial spaceflight sector is not just a parts supplier, not just one of the vendors in the supply chain. The new commercial space industry is a separate and independent space transportation service provider. It is an industry happy to work with NASA and the Department of Defense, not as a subcontractor, but as an equal and necessary ally, proud of its Expendable Launch Vehicle history and focused on a promising Reusable Launch Vehicle future.

Safety, Safety, and more Safety

Commercial space transportation is on the move. However, for this momentum to continue, safety must be the primary concern, especially when passengers are involved. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) already has regulations in place that are based on informed consent. Passengers will have to be fully apprised of all the risks involved and then sign a form acknowledging that they know what they are getting into. The FAA will always insist on safety, safety, and more safety.

When people say to us “Aren’t you people a little too demanding, a little too insistent, a little too focused on checking and inspecting, and checking and inspecting again?” We always say, “guilty as charged.”

Which brings us to another question: Is this for real? I don’t see a whole lot going on.

It is certainly true that you can’t launch a blueprint, you can’t fly a theory, and you can’t ride a promise. But you can put all those things together, take them to a fabrication facility, assemble them, and test them, first on the ground, and then in flight. I admit that you can’t see much of tomorrow just yet, but you can see what tomorrow will be built upon.

In April, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation released a study of commercial space transportation’s impact on the U.S. economy. The figures captured the picture in 2006. In a nutshell, here’s what it showed: $139 billion in economic activity, $35 billion in earnings, and 729,000 jobs.

What we have here is an economic engine built on a solid record that continues to generate jobs, earnings, and the kind of momentum to carry the industry to new levels of achievement.

Times are Changing

What will the future of spaceflight look like in the United States?

Perhaps no other organization in human history, with the exception of the major religions and a few national governments, has had a greater impact on mankind than NASA. As an instrument of national policy and vision, NASA has achieved milestones that had been the stuff of dreams since people first looked to the heavens.

That will continue. However, NASA will no longer be alone, and its role will no longer be the same. Of course, NASA will still be involved in operating the International Space Station, at least for the time being. Ultimately, NASA is counting on commercial space to take over the responsibility for delivering crew and cargo to the ISS, so that it can focus on getting back to the Moon.

Times are changing. Things are going to be different. NASA is headed out into the solar system. What NASA has achieved in low-Earth orbit will soon move to private hands. It will become part of the work of the commercial space community. It will happen because NASA paved the way, but NASA will no longer be the major player in low-Earth orbit—private industry will be. Now that is a change that comes with major implications.

With private industry assuming the primary role in low-Earth orbit, there will be more degrees of separation between policy made at the national level and outcomes in space. When it comes to low-Earth orbit, launch and payload decisions will be determined more in laboratories, on campuses, at foundations, and in board rooms.

The federal government will still exercise full and firm influence on the commercial space sector, insisting at all times on safe operations, but it will be the private sector that sets the agenda for low-Earth orbit activity. NASA was created as a civil agency, with an eye toward commercial operations and results that would benefit the public. In that sense, it has been the intermediate step linking the new world of rocketry to the world of New Space.

The pending emergence of commercial space is a testimonial not only to NASA but to the policymakers who created the agency. Policymakers made space the goal. NASA made it possible. Commercial space transportation will make it happen from here on out.

Can private industry actually bring affordable space access to a broader segment of the public?

My answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” but with a warning and a challenge, both in the words of familiar voices.

The warning comes from Alfred North Whitehead, the English mathematician and philosopher. “We must expect that the future will disclose dangers,” he said. “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.”

The challenge comes from Pablo Picasso. “I am always doing that which I cannot do,” he said, “in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Commercial human spaceflight is dangerous, but the commercial world is learning how to do it. And they will get it done.

Editor’s Note: This article represents the views of the author, and does not necessarily represent the official position or view of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Transportation, or the Government of the United States. This article is based on a speech delivered by Dr. George C. Nield, FAA associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, at the ISDC 2008.