George Nield, the Federal Aviation Administration's associate
administrator for commercial space transportation, pays a visit to the
SpaceShipOne rocket plane at the National Air and Space Museum.
The Federal Aviation Administration celebrates its 50th birthday this week, but don't expect George Nield to be counting the candles on the cake. As the agency's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, Nield prefers to look forward rather than backward. One of his favorite topics is what he calls a new era in spaceflight - an era that includes a bigger role for America's "other" space agency.
The http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ast/about/">space transportation office is the FAA's lesser-known side, often eclipsed by the bigger section of the agency that focuses on commercial and civil aviation. But over the past five years or so, Nield's office has taken a higher profile, thanks to the rise of private-sector space ventures. When the SpaceShipOne rocket plane passed the boundary into outer space four years ago, the FAA got its first opportunity to hand out astronaut wings.
Many more opportunies are on the way, if Nield has anything to do with it.
Nield is a would-be astronaut himself, with more than 30 years of aerospace experience in the U.S. Air Force, NASA and private industry. Early this year, he moved up from the deputy position in the space transportation office to the top post - and thus became the FAA's go-to guy on spaceflight. In an exclusive Q&A, Nield laid out his vision for the next 50 years in commercial spaceflight. Here's an edited transcript:
Cosmic Log: The big question is how the next 50 years will shape up, particularly with the transition to commercial space transportation. How do you see the balance between airplanes and spaceships working out for the FAA in the next 50 years?
Nield: Well, this month is the FAA's 50th anniversary. And I think anniversaries are neat because they present a nice opportunity to reflect on where we've been, what our progress has been, and also to look ahead and ponder the prospects for the future. I particularly enjoy comparing how space transportation is developing as compared to aviation. If you think about commercial space transportation, and particularly human spaceflight, we've been doing this now since 1961, when Yuri Gagarin had his first flight. So it's been 47 years now.
If you think about the first 47 years of aviation - how did that go, after the Wright brothers first flew in 1903? We had quite a transition from fabric-covered biplanes up to very sophisticated aviation systems by 1950. The sound barrier had already been broken by that time, by Chuck Yeager. We had already seen many years of flight by the DC-3 and similar aircraft, carrying both people and cargo. The U.S. military was cranking up the B-47 Stratojet for our strategic bombing.
But more significantly than any of those things, aviation had really become part of the fabric of American life and transportation. For example, by 1950 we had more than 6,000 airports in operation. We had more than 92,000 civil aircraft registered. There were more than half a million licensed pilots. And each year, by that point, over 16 million passengers were being carried on scheduled revenue flights. So there was quite a level of activity.
Now, how 'bout on the space side? Well, certainly there have been many impressive accomplishments: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the moon landings. We had Skylab, the development of the space shuttle, and now the construction and operation of the international space station. All very impressive. But in terms of the impact and the involvement of our citizens, maybe a little more limited. There have only been just over 250 spaceflights to date in the whole world, and fewer than 500 people have ever had the opportunity to look down on the earth from space. What a difference!
Why is that? I've pondered that myself quite a bit. It's not clear exactly what the reason for that is. You can certainly say, well, it takes a lot more energy to get to space. It's more technically difficult, it's a harsher environment, it's riskier, it's a lot more expensive. But maybe the most interesting contrast is the fact that to date, spaceflight has been almost exclusively a federal government operation – whereas on the aviation side, although there have been major contributions in terms of funding research and various programs, it's been up to the private sector to take it and run. And we've seen remarkable things. It's an interesting contrast.
I believe that we're about to see that situation change very significantly in the next few years, and the reason for that is that we are now on the threshold of what you might call a new era in commercial space transportation. That is the beginning of commercial human spaceflight, and specifically the start of suborbital space tourism.
I think within the next three to five years we are going to see multiple companies carrying ticket-buying passengers up to the edge of space, so they can experience the blackness of the sky and see the curvature of the earth and experience the thrill of weightlessness. That's going to mean hundreds of launches and thousands of people every year who are now going to be able to have that experience of going to space. That's really going to change how we think about space.
At the same time, coincidentally, NASA is in the process of retiring the space shuttle. Over the next two years they've got just 10 launches left, and after that, NASA is going to be relying on private industry to service the international space station – first by providing cargo and supplies, and then later on actually carrying people to and from the station.
What that's going to mean is, after the shuttle retires in 2010, and until we start seeing the human flights of Ares 1 and Orion in 2015 or so, the U.S. government is not going to have any vehicles that they own or operate that carry people into space. But it's likely to be a very busy time for commercial human spaceflight, both suborbital and orbital. And that means it's going to be a busy time for the FAA, because those flights are going to be licensed by our office. So we're going to be right in the thick of that.
In the same time frame that we see commercial flights to orbit – both to the international space station and perhaps for standalone missions – we're likely to see the beginning of commercial space stations such as Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable space habitat. They could be operated as space hotels, or space laboratories, or for some other purpose.
After that, I think it won't be long before we see a whole new set of spaceports being developed, both in this country and around the world. And that, in turn, will lead to point-to-point transportation through space. That will make a big difference. Federal Express, of course, is very interested in getting things from A to B rapidly, and there may be other markets in terms of high-value products, or organ transplants, or just adventurers who want to be on the cutting edge of transportation.
That will probably take us out to the next 15 years, but what about after that? It's harder to predict the far-out ideas, but we could see things like commercial operations of on-orbit fuel depots, or solar power satellite systems. Twenty-five years from now, we could even see commercial flights to the moon, and significant commercial participation in the development of lunar settlements or mining operations. By the time you get out that far, if commercial ventures have been somewhat successful, you're likely to see significant partnerships between industry and our government as well as other governments, for exploiting outer space and what it has to offer.
Q: When you're talking about commercial flights to the moon … has anyone even thought about how to regulate such flights? Is that likely to fall under the FAA's authority?
A: We've talked about that around the table, but I don't have any specific answers. Right now, we have the authority to regulate launches and re-entries. The primary purpose is to protect the safety of uninvolved public on the ground. So what that leaves today is [commercial] on-orbit operations, which are not currently under any government agency in terms of regulatory authority. As we start seeing things like space hotels, that may be something that the Congress would decide needs to be updated. Taking it beyond earth orbit, that would also need to be looked at, but I'm not sure people are ready to deal with that until it becomes more real.
Q: But if you think about it, there may be some people involved in the Google Lunar X Prize who are already contemplating private lunar missions, at least to send an unmanned lander to the moon. Have any of the X Prize teams been exploring that, or is it just too early?
A: There have been discussions along those lines. We did have a team from the X Prize Foundation come in and brief us on that. They mentioned that they were in the initial phases of laying out the rules, and thinking about whether there should be constraints on, for example, how close these robots should be allowed to go to the Apollo landing sites. What things should not be disturbed? Is it OK to drive over an astronaut's footprints? There are a lot of interesting philosophical, legal and political questions that need to be grappled with before the competition gets under way.
Q: So the FAA is involved in that. Would you say that the FAA and NASA will be having to work some of these issues more closely together? Is there a dividing line between what the FAA does and what NASA does when it comes to commercial space?
A: I think we'll all be participants in the discussion, but NASA has a different role. We regulate. NASA is not a regulator. They're primarily a research and development agency.
Interestingly, they're changing their focus right now, too, with respect to commercial. They're trying to concentrate more on exploration, getting back to the moon and going on to Mars and so forth. I think they're showing a willingness today, through efforts like the COTS program – the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program – to rely more on industry for things that are being done in low Earth orbit. Industry clearly has the capability to operate there, so NASA should be at the edge in terms of doing new things, in exploration and the highest-technology activities. I think that's a good approach to divvying things up.
Q: You mentioned the idea that people have said putting things into space will always be harder and riskier than aviation. Do you think there will ever come a time when flying a spaceship will be on the same level safety-wise as flying an airplane? Or is there something intrinsic about space travel that will always carry more of a risk?
A: It will probably always be more difficult, and therefore more risky. But I'm hopeful we can continue to show improvements in reliability. In fact, Congress has directed that we strive to continuously improve human spaceflight safety as we go forward. It's interesting to compare this to other risks that people have accepted in daily life.
For example, consider the safety of passenger cars, in which we lose more than 40,000 people every year in accidents. Railway accidents have several hundred fatalities associated with that form of transportation. There are more than 700 marine accidents each year that have fatalities. Even in general aviation, we have on the order of 600 fatalities per year.
Even though this is the safest period in aviation history, we need to put it in context. We know there will be space transportation accidents in the future, and we need to be prepared for that. We want to minimize those. We want to do everything we can to have this be a safe mode of transportation. But transportation can be risky, and we need to recognize that.
Q: I'd like to get back to the idea that it's taken longer than some people might have thought to get to this new spaceflight era. Some people thought that we'd be seeing suborbital space tourism a couple of years after SpaceShipOne took off, but it always seems to remain a couple of years away. Are there any thoughts you have on why the transition has been more difficult?
A: It is hard to predict the future, but the good thing is that all the folks we are seeing in this game right now are focused on safety. These companies recognize how important safety is, and they see that a misstep here or there or a shortcut could mean an accident which could harm the whole industry. So they're taking this very seriously, they're doing it one step at a time, and they're getting ready.
They're not just sitting around and making viewgraphs, or talking about it and shuffling papers. There is real work being done right now to get ready for this. I was just out at Mojave recently to see the rollout of White Knight Two. That's a very impressive aircraft that is going to be part of this overall system that will allow space tourism to take place, and it's done. They're going to be starting flight tests this fall.
Other companies, XCOR Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace, are flying vehicles right now. So although some people would have liked to see operations begin more quickly than they have, they're coming along. It won't be long before we see the first operations under way.
Q: So if we think about the image of the FAA 50 years from now, it does sound as if you see the profile of the agency's spaceflight side on the rise. Is it possible that the agency will need a new name, like Federal Space and Aviation Administration? Will there have to be a systemic change in the agency to respond to the new era?
A: Once we see these things operating, and we see the larger level of activity in place, it may well be that Congress will decide "Federal Aerospace Administration" or some other set of words would be more appropriate. That's really up to them. But certainly our workload is going to be increasing. The role of private industry in spaceflight is going to be considerably higher over this next decade. We're going to be seeing a shift from having space travel almost exclusively under the purview of government to having private industry being a leading player in commercial space transportation. And we'll be right there with them.
Q: I'm sure you're often asked whether you'd like to go into space yourself. What do you think? Are you looking forward to having a spacesuit with your name on it?
A: I'd love to go. I'm looking forward to that.