NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Hackler
Washington, DC – 20 March 2013
Hackler: Today is March 20, 2013. This oral history interview is being
conducted with George Nield at the Headquarters of the Federal Aviation
Administration [FAA] in Washington, DC, for the Commercial Crew &
Cargo Program Office History Project. The interviewer is Rebecca Hackler,
assisted by Rebecca Wright.
Dr. Nield is the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Commercial
Space Transportation. We’d like to, first of all, thank you
very much for your time this afternoon, and we’d like to begin
by asking you to briefly describe your background and how you came
to this position and what your role is here.
Certainly, and I’m happy to participate in this. I think it’s
a very worthy and important project. I went to the United States Air
Force Academy in Colorado, and later on I got my Master’s degree
from Stanford [University, Stanford, California] in Aeronautics and
Astronautics. As part of my Air Force career, I served as an astronautical
engineer working on various Air Force space projects and then had
the opportunity to go out to Edwards Air Force Base [California] and
go through the Air Force Test Pilot School as a flight test engineer.
It was a fun opportunity for me.
At that time, the Space Shuttle Program was just getting started.
There were calls out for potential astronauts to apply, and I thought
that would be a fun thing to do. I applied and made the finals to
come down for an interview and the various tests and so forth at JSC
[Johnson Space Center]. I did not make the final selection, and thought
a good thing to do to improve my chances going forward would be to
go back to school and get a PhD [Doctor of Philosophy]. So I went
back to Stanford.
As a follow-on assignment I taught at the Air Force Academy in the
Astronautics Department and then was assigned down at the Johnson
Space Center in Houston, working on the Space Shuttle Program. I was
there for 16 years actually. Most of that time was working in the
Shuttle Program Office, including a number of years as Manager of
the Flight Integration Office there. In 1999 I left NASA and went
to work in industry for Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Virginia.
I worked on different projects there, then in 2003 I came to the FAA.
I was the Deputy Associate Administrator, and then when my boss, Patti
[Patricia] Grace Smith, retired I was selected as the Associate Administrator.
Looking back at my career, I’ve had a chance to do a lot of
very interesting and fun things. I never would have predicted the
exact pathway, but it turned out that a lot of the experiences that
I was able to have in the Air Force and with NASA and in private industry
contributed to my understanding of what’s going on today in
commercial space transportation. I feel like it’s been a real
great preparation for my current job.
As Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, I
lead one of the four lines of business in the FAA, along with Aviation
Safety, the Airports Office, and the Air Traffic Organization. We
have a great group of folks, and it’s our job to oversee all
of the exciting things going on today in commercial space transportation.
Before you joined the FAA, as you mentioned, you were at Orbital Sciences
Corporation. We know there were some precursor efforts to get commercial
cooperation with NASA in place before the COTS [Commercial Orbital
Transportation Services] program—I’m thinking specifically
of the Alternate Access to Station effort—and I was wondering
if when you were at Orbital you had any awareness of that specific
program, or just general efforts to get commercial spaceflight started?
I wasn’t involved in that particular project, but there are
some related programs that I was involved in. When I joined Orbital,
one of the things I worked on was the STAS program. That’s Space
Transportation Architecture Study, which was a program that NASA had
back in that timeframe which was designed to look at what happens
after the Shuttle. That was an interesting and wide-ranging effort.
There were a number of different ideas that were put forth by different
companies in the industry at that time, ranging from, “Let’s
just keep flying the Shuttle, but we’ll continue to improve
it. We’ll have liquid flyback boosters and great avionics,”
and things like that that can hopefully bring the cost down.
Lockheed [Martin] put forth their ideas for the VentureStar and the
X-33 [spaceplane] to have basically single-stage-to-orbit access to
space. Orbital was looking at a variety of ideas, including a small
spaceplane that looked a lot like the Shuttle, but would be launched
by an expendable booster at the beginning. Then over time it would
fly on top of two-stage reusable systems, so that was a neat precursor
to some of the things that we see happening today. I was involved
a little bit with that.
You mentioned the Alternate Access to Station, and I think that was
a pretty narrow project that not a lot of people had understanding
of or necessarily support for at the time. Orbital actually was pushing
the idea that there might be some very important, high-value equipment
that we have to get up to the [International] Space Station right
away. They had the Pegasus rocket that they thought would be a good
candidate to provide that type of transportation service for relatively
small items, but I think there was enough concern on the part of NASA
of “Can we really allow these companies to come close to the
Space Station, and how much does it cost? The Shuttle is working pretty
good right now and so we really don’t need that type of thing,”
so that went by the wayside.
The other program that was going on in those days was the second generation
Reusable Launch Vehicle program [Space Launch Initiative], and again,
that was trying to look beyond the Shuttle and what kinds of things
would make sense from industry’s perspective to follow on after
the Shuttle is retired. I had a little bit of involvement there, but
I actually left Orbital before COTS itself was established.
What was the atmosphere like for commercial space when you joined
this office at the FAA in 2003? What sort of initiatives were underway,
and how did those evolve as you spent your years here?
There are several different aspects to that question. If I just look
within the FAA, that was a challenge in and of itself. Originally
the Office of Commercial Space Transportation was formed in response
to President [Ronald W.] Reagan’s executive order back in 1984,
and the passage by Congress of the Commercial Space Launch Act. But
at that time it was a staff office reporting directly to the Secretary
Then, in 1995, the office was moved to the FAA, and of course the
FAA is a huge organization. They’ve been around for many years
and they pretty much knew how to do things. You’d just bring
your certification request in and they’ll evaluate that and
inspect the aircraft and keep the planes flying safely and everything’s
Of course in the space arena, it’s not quite so routine or cut
and dried. Everything we’re doing is brand new, first of a kind,
“Let’s figure out what the right approach is.” It’s
been interesting to help people understand that we don’t all
fit in the same modes of doing business. In the rest of government
I think it was recognized that commercial space had its place, at
least in terms of launching telecommunication satellites and things
like that, but there was a tacit assumption that the government would
continue to do most of the important things, whether it’s for
exploration or space stations or national security needs.
In fairness, there have been some oscillations of feeling about commercial.
Back in the ’90s there was a big push when people thought that
Reusable Launch Vehicles were really going to be an important part
of the space program going forward, and the market sort of fell out
of the bottom during that timeframe. It didn’t really come to
pass, at least at that time.
Looking today though, you can really see a lot of activity starting
to happen and just over the horizon, ranging from the Richard [C.N.]
Branson Virgin Galactic [LLC] space tourism activities, to supplying
cargo and crew to the Space Station, to the Google Lunar X Prize contest
to have people send a robot to the lunar surface, to the Golden Spike
project, where private folks try to sell expeditions to the Moon to
do research. Recently we had Inspiration Mars [Foundation] with Dennis
[A.] Tito saying he can put together a privately-funded effort to
send people on a flyby within 100 miles of the Mars surface, so an
awful lot of things going on and a very exciting time for commercial
space right now.
How did your office work with commercial companies to encourage that
sort of development?
We are a unique government organization in that we have a two-fold
mission from the Congress: first of all, to ensure public safety;
and secondly, to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space
transportation. We’re not going to compromise on safety. We
handle our launch license applications and our inspections as very
important activities, but at the same time we try not to be rigid,
bureaucratic, lots of red tape. We’re always looking for how
to do things better. It’s our goal that these companies can
be both safe and successful going forward, and that’s the way
we try to do our work.
I understand you also attend a lot of the NewSpace conferences to
talk directly with the companies.
That’s right. Especially when I joined the office, I think there
was a lot of suspicion and skepticism about, “Are these government
bureaucrats here to help us?” and “I’m not sure
if we should talk to them or listen to them or believe them. Gosh,
if we start talking, it will just take a lot of time and effort and
they probably won’t let us do what we want to do.” I think
over time we’ve built a trust and an understanding and recognition
that not only can they be successful working with our office, but
it can be a good thing. It can be helpful to them in sharing information
and understanding best practices going forward.
You do have the dual role of balancing the regulation and safety with
also trying to encourage innovation. What are some of the possible
benefits for the companies of having regulation?
Again, we don’t ever compromise safety, but if you look at the
encourage/facilitate/ promote role, we’re trying to listen and
understand what kinds of policies or activities the government is
doing that are turning out to be obstacles to the industry. Whether
it’s procurement systems or ITAR [International Traffic in Arms
Regulations] or how the paperwork is handled, what kinds of things
add cost or delay or frustration to the industry. And if there are
things that we can fix, then we try to do that.
We’re also very plugged into the interagency community and have
regular meetings with the White House and the Office of Science and
Technology Policy and the National Security Council, the State Department,
NASA, DoD [Department of Defense] and so forth. Things like the National
Space Policy and what needs to be in there and what kind of messages
do we want to send, and what kinds of things do we as a nation want
to do to have a healthy industrial base and to have a successful space
You mentioned procurement can be a barrier to commercial companies.
We’ve heard that the FAA was a stakeholder in the first COTS
selection process. Did you attend any of those selection meetings
or help choose which companies would be selected to develop their
technology under this new way of doing business?
We were involved. One of our engineers who had experience working
at the Johnson Space Center was a consultant, if you will, in the
initial review of the proposals. I was a so-called “ex officio”
adviser during the selection meetings. That meant I was invited to
sit in and hear the briefings that were given to the NASA selection
official prior to the decisions there. I didn’t get a vote,
but I think it was very helpful to NASA and very interesting to us
to be a part of that process for a couple different reasons.
First of all, we work every day with these companies, and so we had
a pretty good sense of their capabilities, their plans, their safety
culture, their professionalism and so forth. We could share that,
rather than just trying to glean all those things from a proposal
if you are not familiar with a particular company. Then, second, a
huge part of this whole initiative is changing the way the government
does business. Part of that is for the government, for NASA, to back
off from its normal looking-over-your-shoulder oversight and dictating
every decision on the design and the development and the operations,
to more of an understanding of how they’re doing it using Space
There was a requirement in the Space Act Agreement that the companies
would need to get an FAA launch license. That was a brand new mechanism
for many in NASA, and we were able to provide answers to their questions
on how that works. What does it mean, what are the requirements, is
that a big deal or not, is it hard, how much does it cost, and so
forth. We could help NASA understand what was really involved in getting
an FAA license.
And in the selection, what sort of specific capabilities or qualities
were you looking for in the companies’ proposals to help make
the COTS program successful?
Again, I was not a voting member of the board, but certainly it was
important to see that these were credible proposals. That these companies
knew what they were talking about, and they had the demonstrated or
at least the believable capability to design, build, and operate these
systems. That was an interesting task. Most of the established, large
companies either were not interested in being part of this project
or were skeptical of what it would mean, or their cost structure was
such that it really wouldn’t be able to be successful if they
charged the government the amounts and the ways that they were used
You saw a whole new set of smaller, entrepreneurial companies that
were coming forward and saying, “Hey, we can do it,” so
the task was to figure out which of them could really do it, and which
were really just good proposal writers or good salesmen or good travel
agents that could bring together some people, but they themselves
really didn’t have the capability to do what the government
needed. That was really what the challenge was all about.
Did you have any input into how the program was put together as far
as making the new Space Act Agreement friendly to commercial interests?
We had a chance to read through the drafts of the proposed Space Act
Agreements and the call for proposals and made comments, mostly to
clarify what it meant to get a launch license and to help NASA understand
this different way of doing things.
Since you’ve mentioned it, what is involved in getting a launch
license and reentry license for these companies?
We have actually licensed more than 200 commercial launches since
the office was established. Going back to the very beginning, it was
important for us to have a credible set of requirements that the companies
had to meet. What we did at the time was work closely with the Air
Force on the Eastern and Western Ranges. They had 50 years of experience
launching things and had developed requirements that companies had
to meet in order to launch from Cape Canaveral [Air Force Station,
Florida] or Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California] and so forth.
Not all of that was written down. A lot of it was just, “Well,
this is the way we’ve always done it,” or it involved
verbal direction or assumptions.
We worked for many years with the Air Force to try to make sure that
as we wrote this down in our regulations, which were going to be part
of the Code of Federal Regulations that anybody can see, that we had
it right. We’re not going to see word-for-word duplication of
what the military has, but every requirement that they have has something
that meets the intent on our side so that we have common safety standards.
The first round of that project was to see if we could clearly document
in writing what a company had to do in order to ensure public safety
if they were launching from, say, the Eastern Launch Range. Although
it took a while, we were able to do that. That means we have a big,
fat book of regulations, but at least the companies understand exactly
what’s expected of them. If they can’t meet it for some
reason then they need to ask for a waiver, and we work closely with
the Air Force to make sure that the government has a single position
in terms of what’s required.
To get back to your question of what’s involved, our top-level
goal is public safety, so we don’t try to look at every system
and subsystem of the rocket. We look at what can go wrong, where is
it launching from, are there people or high value facilities or other
things on the ground in the surrounding area, and what happens when
something does go wrong. For an unmanned rocket, there will be someone
sitting there in the control room, and if it starts to go off course
then they can push the big red button and blow up the rocket so that
it doesn’t end up landing on a schoolyard or something like
That’s our primary concern, public safety. We have requirements
that the expected casualties from this launch—Ec as they call
it—has to be less than 30 in a million, so a very, very low
probability of something going wrong that would result in a fatality
to the general public.
Of course that’s very different from what the military or NASA
does because, in addition to being concerned about public safety,
which they are of course, they need mission success. That is a good
thing, but it results in a lot more oversight, a lot more questions,
a lot more paperwork, a lot more cost in order to get that final product.
Our concern is to ensure public safety, and a customer, whether it’s
a communication satellite developer or NASA in the case of COTS, can
decide about mission assurance and what they need to do and want to
do in addition to the public safety piece.
We understand there are different types of permits and licenses—experimental
launch, reentry, and then also an operator’s permit. Can you
explain about those?
We have a basic launch license, and if a new company comes in and
says, “We have a rocket. We want to have a commercial launch,”
then what we would typically do—if we’re satisfied that
they know what they’re doing and have a good safety culture
and it looks like it’s going to be safe—then we could
give them a license for a single launch.
After they’ve demonstrated that they know what they’re
doing and they have a good track record of a few successful missions,
then we’re going to entertain having an operator’s license
such that they can launch as many times as they want with the same
basic rocket on the same basic trajectory from the same location and
so forth. United Launch Alliance and others have an operator’s
license. They have done a number of launches, and we’re satisfied
that they have good systems and good procedures going on. New companies
would typically get a launch-specific license to start and then over
time could get the operator’s license.
The other tool that we have in terms of authorizing activities, as
you mentioned, is an experimental permit. That was put in place in
2004, when it was right in the middle of things like the [Ansari]
X Prize and we were starting to see hybrid vehicles that looked a
little like airplanes and a little bit like rockets. There was a thought
that maybe what we need to have is something that’s more akin
to an experimental airworthiness certificate that’s used in
aviation, and so Congress gave us the ability to issue experimental
They are intended to be a little bit easier to get, a little bit less
data required, a little bit less burdensome. It’s intended basically
for research and development testing. Once you’ve completed
those tests and you want to conduct those launches for compensation
or hire, and you want to sell the launch as opposed to just doing
testing on it, then you would need a full license.
In rough numbers, about how many companies have those licenses now?
Did you see a big increase in people getting experimental permits
to develop their vehicles for commercial capabilities? The companies
that worked on COTS—have they moved on to getting their operator’s
It goes up and down. We don’t actually have to have someone
with a license in place until they want to fly, so we’re talking
to, say, half a dozen companies on the suborbital side that are all
planning to do space tourism. We’ve only given out one permit
so far, to Scaled Composites [LLC], but there are other companies
who, as soon as they’re ready, will be submitting their applications.
Similarly for Orbital. Orbital already has their launch-specific licenses,
and since it’s a new booster, the Antares, even though they
have experience—after they get a few launches under their belt
there, then we can talk to them about an operator’s license.
SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corp.] has had several licenses
on a mission-specific basis. We’ve talked to them about getting
an operator’s license. As it turns out, they’re basically
in the middle of changing their rocket significantly. The next launch
that they do, which will be out at Vandenberg in California, will
have significantly larger, higher thrust engines. That really isn’t
a true derivative of the Falcon 9 that they’ve been flying,
so we’d like to see those fly a few times before we move to
the operator’s license.
I was just thinking it must be interesting for you to return to working
with Orbital Sciences since that’s where you were before.
It’s an exciting time. We’re seeing lots of innovation,
fresh thinking, new ideas, new ways of doing business, and I think
that just benefits everybody. A lot of folks have talked about, “We
need to downselect, we need to get one good system and stick with
it,” but competition has proven itself to be a good thing. When
you have a technical issue or a grounding from an accident or financial
difficulties on the part of a particular company, to be able to say,
“That’s down for a while, let’s use another system,”
that’s great. Also, by having competition, you’re challenging
the existing companies to always improve their product and make it
safer, make it lower cost, make it more reliable, and incorporate
new technologies, and that’s a good thing.
You have mentioned your cooperation with the military and, of course,
NASA. Can you expound a little bit more upon how you work with other
federal agencies in this new world of commercial space transportation?
You’ve got the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] for communications
and the Department of Transportation.
There are several aspects of our cooperation. Each department or agency
has their own responsibilities that can overlap a little bit at times.
You mentioned the FCC. They have responsibility for the radio broadcasting
that is done for missions, and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration] has responsibility for Earth observation, but in terms
of the transportation and the safety of the activities, we’re
At the beginning of the process when a company applies for a launch
license, one of the things we do is we do a policy review. That basically
involves summarizing the plans that the company has, and then sharing
those with other government agencies—NASA, DoD, [Department
of] Commerce, and the State Department—and trying to identify
any particular issues or concerns that anyone has about what they’re
attempting to do, and making sure that folks are not surprised when
you get to the end. That’s the formal part.
When you get to the mission, everybody has their defined role and
we certainly try to work closely together. I mentioned NASA in terms
of supplying the Space Station. You could think of them as being the
customer really. They have a lot to worry about, but we try to make
sure that we’re there to support so that the mission can be
successful for them. I mentioned working with the Air Force. If there
are waiver requests or issues as we head towards the launch date,
we try to work behind the curtain, if you will, with the Air Force
so that the government has a unified position and the company doesn’t
say, “Well, the FAA told us this and the Air Force told us that.
Which do you want us to do?”
We try to make sure that we’re on the same page and can present
a united front to the companies involved. I also mentioned the interagency
activities during things like the development of the National Space
Policy, and the National Space Transportation Policy. We have regular
gatherings of the government space community to talk about how things
are going. Any problems, any issues, what kinds of things do we want
to say to keep the nation moving in the right direction in terms of
our space program.
What sort of issues do you anticipate as space traffic increases,
with more and more companies developing their vehicles? How do you
have to work with the other government agencies on those?
First of all, there’s the question of overall workload. If we
start seeing hundreds of suborbital launches every year, which I think
we will very soon, there is just a lot more to do. So we’ll
have to take a look at the resources we have available, trying to
ensure that there isn’t a waiting list or delays because we
can’t do our safety evaluations quick enough.
We also may see the nature of the job changing. Today our regulatory
responsibility is pretty much limited to launch and reentry, and there
really is no government entity that has the responsibility for overseeing
what happens on orbit. It’s pretty much the Wild West, and there
is a good reason for why it’s that way if you think back to
the beginning of the office. The primary focal point was supposed
to be public safety, so when are the times when someone could get
hurt? Well, during launch or when it comes back to Earth. There is
nobody out in space, so there are no members of the public that could
be in danger, and we don’t need to have any government involvement
Now we’ve got the International Space Station up there, a huge,
expensive national asset. We want to protect that. We’ve got
a lot of satellites. We’ve got programs underway to take people
into orbit and a lot of them will be going to the International Space
Station. Some will be going to other destinations like the Bigelow
[Aerospace] station [Next-Generation Commercial Space Station] and
other commercial destinations, so we’re going to have lots of
people there and lots of expensive satellites.
Does it make sense for the government to have some kind of oversight
or involvement in those activities? I think you could make that case,
and so we’re in discussions with other parts of the government
right now. We’ll see whether Congress decides that it’s
appropriate to designate an agency as being responsible for ensuring
that we minimize the chance of collisions or additional orbital debris
being generated during all of the activity, and we can keep people
One of the other areas of activity your office is involved in is the
development of commercial spaceports. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport,
where Orbital is launching from—could you talk a little bit
about the various issues there, with it being private-owned but having
government involvement, and the various politics around that.
As you mentioned, we do have responsibility to oversee commercial
spaceports. We actually have eight different licensed spaceports in
the U.S. today, and they’re all different. There is not one
standard architecture. The first four are your traditional launch
sites with a launch pad and a gantry, and that’s the way we’ve
always launched rockets. The other four, that have been granted their
licenses more recently, look more like airports. They have runways
and hangars, and they’re designed to accommodate horizontal
takeoff and landing vehicles that might be developed.
In each case, we’re not dictating, “This is what you have
to have, you have to build your spaceport just like this.” It’s
either a state or a local community or some other entity that is deciding,
“We want to be a part of this, and here’s the market we’re
going to go after. Here’s the kind of vehicles we want to have
operating out of this location.”
It’s interesting as a point of comparison to look at Spaceport
America in New Mexico. Out in the boonies—that can be a good
thing for safety. There are not a lot of people and buildings and
things around. It’s a very beautiful area. There is an interesting
story that I used to hear Governor [William B. “Bill”]
Richardson tell about why they were getting involved in space. He
used to ask the question, “Do you know what the most important
export is for the state of New Mexico?” He used to say, “It’s
our children.” Because they would grow up, and there are no
jobs there and there is no future, so they would go somewhere else.
He was able to convince the New Mexico legislature, “We need
to have a program that incentivizes people to stay here, with jobs
and technology and reasons to study math and science and engineering.”
It can be the Gateway to Space, which is what they’ve named
their terminal hangar facility out there. That will be the headquarters
for Virgin Galactic when they complete their testing. It’s pretty
interesting, and a very different type of a setup than you’ll
find at Cape Canaveral or at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport [MARS].
In the case of MARS, we’ve got the NASA Wallops [Flight Facility,
Virginia] there. They’ve done a variety of things over the years
with aircraft testing, and a lot of suborbital sounding rockets, but
now the state of Virginia wants to be a big player and they have put
together this attractive package for Orbital to fly their missions
out of there with their Antares rocket.
There are a lot of great, smart, experienced NASA employees and contractors
that are already there, but this is a big rocket now, and it’s
a little different than some of the activities that they’ve
had in the past. There have been some challenges in terms of getting
the launch pad itself ready to go. Larger vehicles than they’ve
had in the past, and these are liquids instead of just the solid rockets.
It’s taken a lot longer and has been a lot more expensive than
Orbital, and many others I think, were hoping for at the beginning
of the program, but now we’re getting very close to their first
demonstration launch and hopefully all the challenges are behind them.
How have you worked with them to help overcome those challenges?
Orbital is very motivated to have the facilities that they need to
conduct their launch, and MARS has responsibilities in terms of overseeing
the facilities and the hardware that they’re responsible for.
NASA, being the host, if you will, is also very involved. The state
of Virginia wants to make sure this is acceptable too, so everybody
is trying to work together.
This is not a program that we are managing; we’re not spending
our money. We’re not on the hook to have a particular spaceport
be successful, or even a particular company or a particular rocket.
We try to be objective and helpful, but we’re not asking for
the latest schedules and demanding test data. It’s basically,
“Prove to me you’re ready to go and I’ll give you
the license,” and go forward from there. It’s really not
our role in this process to have on-time, on-budget completion of
the program, although we’re certainly rooting for them to get
it done as soon as they’re able.
I have one more question I’d like to ask you before I turn it
over to Rebecca to see if she has any follow-up questions. Since you’ve
been with the Office of Commercial Space Transportation the last 10
years and you’ve seen the COTS program through from beginning
to end, in your opinion, from your perspective, what has been the
role of COTS in helping get commercial space transportation started?
I think COTS has been a fantastic program. It’s been a new paradigm.
It’s been a new way of doing business. It and the X Prize, I
think, have been the two key factors in helping commercial space show
significant progress in recent years. Now I am an optimist, and I
strongly believe that commercial space transportation is going to
do great things and be successful going forward with or without the
government, with or without the FAA, with or without NASA.
It’s just going to happen, but the government can make a huge
difference in how fast that future comes about, and doing things the
COTS way is the way to have them happen most quickly and most successfully,
in my opinion. This is not the way we’ve always done it, and
there have been a lot of challenges. There have been a lot of skeptics.
There have been a lot of critics, but each step of the way it’s
becoming harder and harder to criticize and to argue against this
way because we’re getting some fantastic achievements for minimal
How do you address those skeptics when they express their criticisms?
I serve as a member of Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, ASAP, which
advises the NASA Administrator and the Congress on the safety of things.
Again, a great team. I really enjoy working with them, but we have
a lot of folks on the team that are used to doing things a different
way. I try to present the other side of the argument to show what’s
been happening. The only way really to win the argument in the end
is to demonstrate it. “See, it happened. You didn’t think
it would, but it did.”
We can look at SpaceX with their three missions to the International
Space Station, and Orbital is getting close to demonstrating their
capability to do the same kind of mission. We’ve seen great
progress in similar programs with the Commercial Crew [Program]. I
really think there is a lot of merit for this type of approach, both
for NASA and for other government agencies. It’s getting very
difficult in today’s budget environment to continue to do things
the same old way. We have to look for new and better ways to operate,
and this looks like a way with a lot of potential for me.
I did have one other thought—you mentioned the Aerospace Safety
Advisory Panel, and one group that your organization works with is
COMSTAC, the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee. How
do you work with them?
That is a group that meets twice a year and they provide us advice
and counsel. We get together and share the things that we’ve
been working on, and then we listen to questions and concerns and
recommendations that industry has on how we’re doing business.
We try to be a learning organization and listen to the feedback that
we get, and so we’re always interested in how industry feels
about it. We think we have a pretty good sense for how folks are feeling
about our regulations and our policies and our procedures, but if
people aren’t happy then they’ll tell us and we’ll
see if we can address their concerns.
The other thing we try to do is we may be working on a particular
project, and we may not know what is the right approach. We’ll
actually task the advisory committee to come up with a recommendation
on how should we handle this particular issue because, as I mentioned
before, many of the things we do are being done for the first time.
There is no template. There is no cookbook that we can just pull off
the shelf and say, “This is just another one of those, we’ve
done that several times before.” We’re having to figure
out what makes sense. Again, safety is at the top of the list, but
we want these companies to be successful too. The only way to absolutely
guarantee safety is not to launch at all, and that’s not the
Do you have any specific examples of recommendations that you were
able to implement?
Most recently we’ve been starting to look ahead at Commercial
Crew and how that’s going to work. Congress has passed what
is sometimes called a moratorium that says they don’t want us
to issue any new regulations to ensure the safety of the crew or spaceflight
participants until industry has had some experience flying those missions.
At the same time, they’ve told us they want us to talk with
industry about what industry would like to see or what things would
We’ve worked with COMSTAC to have monthly teleconferences with
the public, with them as facilitators, and the key technical experts
to try to look at some of the issues that are involved with the kinds
of regulations that we might end up needing for a commercial human
spaceflight. To have the feedback on, “Do we want a numeric
target for safety, what kind of medical requirements would make sense,
do we need to have a certain level of redundancy as a requirement
from the government,” things like that. There are different
opinions, so we’re interested in what does industry think, what
does the public think, before we actually start to draft something
that could eventually become a regulation.
Thank you. I’d like to turn it over to Rebecca Wright.
A couple of questions—you mentioned that COTS has been fantastic
on the return on investment from the tax dollars invested because
of the way they’ve chosen to do business. Can you point out
a few things where you feel that the way that they have structured
the program has been beneficial for the overall scope of commercial
It’s really a new way of doing business. The typical way of
doing business in aerospace—which by the way is different from
the rest of the U.S. economy—is that there will be a cost-plus
contract and the government will dictate every detail of how they
want the design and when they want it done and how to achieve the
desired result. You’ll hear people say, “We’ve had
industry working with NASA for 50 years. What’s the big deal?”
The big deal is we’re doing business a different way. The government
is not deciding how to design an Antares, how to design a Falcon 9,
what kind of systems they need to have. They’re just saying,
“Here’s the product we want. Here’s the service
we want to buy, and we’re willing to do that on a fixed-price
basis. We’ll tell you the requirements that you have to meet.
If you successfully meet the requirements, then we’ll pay you.
If you don’t meet the requirements, then we won’t pay
And so this is a great value for the taxpayer. Instead of the typical
aerospace program, where there are inevitable delays and problems
and issues—if you’re on a cost-plus contract, then that
just means there’s a schedule slippage and the overall program
cost continues to increase. The well-intentioned companies are happy
with that because they continue to be paid by the government to find
the problem and continue to work. Even though they might not have
chosen a particular design, if that’s what the government wants
and the government is willing to pay for it, then they’ll do
Not that anybody is bad—there are good people involved—but
it’s a question of what are the incentives. Are you open to
new ways of doing business? Are you open to innovation? Are you open
to American ingenuity? If you structure a program such that—instead
of how you want it done, you just say what you want done. “Deliver
this amount of cargo to the International Space Station, we’ll
pay you if you do it. If you have problems, you’ll have to try
again. Otherwise, you won’t get the payment.” That’s
a completely different way of operating and I think it’s proven
to be very successful.
We’ve also been able to keep some competition. For the last
several years, we’ve seen some downsizing, some mergers, some
companies go out of business in aerospace, until you’ve basically
got a monopoly with one launch provider. They’re doing a great
job and they have a great record, but if there is no one to compete
with then I think that takes the edge off of things. Maybe it will
cause you to take your eye off the ball and not be thinking about,
how can I make it better, how can I make it more reliable, how can
I make it safer, how can I make it lower cost.
NASA is in the same situation right now with delivering people to
the Space Station. We have only one way to do that, and that’s
to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz. Now that the Shuttle has been retired,
if the Russians decide they want to increase the cost, we have no
other alternative. As soon as we can get some U.S. companies demonstrating
that capability, I think we’ll be in a much better position.
I’m hopeful that we can continue to use the same basic model
that we used in the COTS program as we go forward on commercial crew
You just gave a great explanation about the cost savings regarding
NASA by involving commercial space groups, but if you take the space
agency and its benefits out, what are the benefits for this robust
space industry for the public? How does it benefit the government
to be so involved in promoting this new industry?
I believe great things are going to happen in space, but today and
going forward the government doesn’t have enough money to pay
for all those good things. We’re not going to have the government
pay for multiple rockets for many different purposes. In fact, NASA
has barely had enough money to keep the Shuttle operating back and
forth to the Space Station over the last number of years. Does that
mean we’re constrained in terms of what kind of space program
we can have? No. Only if we say, well, everything has to be done by
If we can open up our horizons and say the government can be the anchor
tenant or the prime customer, or focus on exploring—it can be
the leading edge. We can demonstrate new technologies and then we
can have other people come behind. Then industry can continue to grow.
There can be more activity. What do I mean? If NASA can get comfortable
with private companies delivering cargo, like SpaceX and Orbital on
COTS and CRS [Commercial Resupply Services], then we can use NASA
funds and NASA people to do the hard stuff, the new stuff, like going
back to the Moon or going to an asteroid or going to Mars. Without
having to have the rockets, the engineers, the control room, everybody
focusing on going back and forth to low-Earth orbit. That’s
something we’ve done for 50 years.
Now it’s not easy. It’s hard, but we’ve done it.
We know how to do it, and we have good companies that are stepping
forward to say, “Hey, give me a chance.” I think that’s
the secret. If we can have the government focus on the new stuff,
the hard stuff, and allow industry to help, you can leverage your
investment and end up with a larger market and additional funds, all
of which potentially can benefit the public at large.
Examples—the suborbital segment has almost no government money
invested in it. Yes, the government has done demonstrations. They’ve
learned all the things about rocket engines, vehicles, and all the
rest. We’ve had the X-15 Program and so forth and so on, but
these companies are using their own money and developing systems to
take people up to the edge of space and back. I am absolutely convinced
that in the next few years, we’re going to see multiple companies
launching suborbital space tourism flights to the edge of space hundreds
of times a year with thousands of people getting a chance to personally
experience spaceflight. Now think about that for a minute. I mean,
yes, it’s suborbital, so some people say it’s not a big
deal. Well, it was a big deal when Alan Shepard did it, and that was
billions of dollars and thousands of people. Now we’re talking
about small companies doing this and opening it up.
It’s fascinating to me to compare the development of aviation
with what we’ve done in human spaceflight. If you look at the
first 50 years after the Wright brothers, gosh, what a tremendous
growth. Hundreds of companies buildings airplanes, thousands of different
models and millions of people being able to buy a ticket and go fly
somewhere. Yes, there were a lot of accidents along the way, but we’ve
learned a lot from that activity and so today aviation is the safest
way to travel. It’s a rare event when you see a commercial airline
accident, which is a tremendous place to be.
How did we get there? We had a lot of activity by the industry. Eventually
we had government regulations and oversight incorporating best practices,
lessons learned, common sense, ways to design things. We don’t
have that kind of experience today in space, and we were never going
to get there by flying the Space Shuttle six times a year. We’re
going to have to learn what’s important, what makes sense, what
kinds of ways do we need to and want to develop and operate these
space systems in the future.
When we get there, it’s going to open up space to anybody who
can buy a ticket. Right now it will be very expensive, but as soon
as we start to see competition that price is going to come down. You
know it will. These companies would be silly to lower the price now
because there are people lining up to buy them at $200,000 a seat.
So you’ve got the whole suborbital industry.
We see other examples like the Google Lunar X Prize, Inspiration Mars,
Golden Spike, and the B612 Foundation [dedicated to protecting Earth
from asteroid strikes]—a lot of groups with academia and industry,
mining companies that want to go capture an asteroid and bring back
the goodies. It’s not just because it’s a NASA program.
NASA can help, NASA can facilitate, NASA can advise. NASA can incentivize
and encourage, and I hope they will, but it doesn’t all have
to be NASA programs. If we can get over that thinking, I think NASA
and the government and the public can all benefit.
Do you see an evolution in the overall thinking of the National Space
Policy because of the emerging markets that are coming through now?
We’re seeing more and more emphasis on and talk about commercial
space transportation in the national policies, so the National Space
Policy from 2010 and the new National Space Transportation Policy
which will be coming out soon both have a lot of discussion about
commercial space and the fact that this is a good thing and the nation
wants to encourage it. Yes, I see that growing over time. At the same
time, NASA will appropriately focus on exploration, and get beyond
the back and forth routine transportation and do the new, hard things.
When you go to testify on the [Capitol] Hill or when you talk to [Congressional]
staffers, do you get a lot of push back? Or are you getting a lot
of encouragement, as in questions on how best to move commercial spaceflight
forward? Or, are you getting a lot of questions from skeptics of why
we should be pushing this down?
There is a range of opinions. I see my role in this position as being
someone who can tell the story in a way that helps people understand
what’s involved, what options does the nation face, and how
commercial space can help NASA. Typically in the past when you would
say “space” you meant NASA, so people who like space stuff
just assume that that means NASA.
That’s fine, but I think we’re learning today that it’s
not just NASA, and we need to look at what else can happen that can
be of benefit to NASA, including lower costs for more reliable systems,
and leveraging the government investment and taking care of things
that NASA has already demonstrated so that NASA can focus on the other
things. It’s a challenge. Not everybody has the same viewpoint.
There are different approaches that we can take, but I’m pretty
excited about the direction we seem to be heading.
The last question is just a process question about getting a permit.
What’s the cost?
We don’t charge anything. It’s just a question of do you
have staff members who know what they’re doing, and how long
does it take them to gather together the appropriate information and
submit that to us. How long does it take? Well, it depends on how
much experience and knowledge the people have.
By law, we’re required to evaluate and make a determination
on a launch license application within 180 days, but it has to be
complete by the time that clock starts. A permit is similar, but it’s
120 days. We encourage people to come to us as soon as they start
thinking about what they want to do so that they have a better understanding
for what we expect of them, what the requirements are, and what the
process looks like. They can give us drafts and we’re happy
to give feedback along the way.
I guess the thing that has changed the most in the last few years
for permits is the reentry side. Lots of people were launching rockets
for satellites or for commercial ventures in the sense of communication,
but now you have the X Prize and the tourism factor. Are you having
to see how the vehicles are going to impact the nation as they reenter?
The suborbital segment is really brand new, and it’s going to
be a significant part of what we do going forward I think, for the
reason you just mentioned. Actual reentry from orbit is still rather
rare. Right now SpaceX’s Dragon is the only system that can
bring back cargo from the Space Station. Even Orbital is just delivering
things, and then they will reenter the trash. The Soyuz is not able
to bring back any significant amount of material or experiments. The
capsule is just too small.
And the last question is, what do you do when you have a company like
SpaceX? You’ve been working with them, but they’ve decided
now they’re going to launch somewhere else. Does the FAA have
jurisdiction into what they’re doing if they’re not doing
it on U.S. soil?
We sure do. Under U.S. law, any U.S. citizen or company that wants
to conduct the launch of a launch vehicle anywhere in the world has
to get a license from us. So that’s an interesting thing. A
lot of people did not understand that, and in COTS there were companies
who thought, “I don’t want to have to deal with the FAA.
We’ll just launch somewhere else and then we won’t have
to worry about a launch license.” Wrong! The law says they still
have to come to us, and we’ll work with the host nation in terms
of any particular requirements they have.
We’ve had Pegasus launches based from locations outside the
U.S, there have been launches from Australia that have gotten an FAA
license in the past. That’s not a way to get out from under
regulations. Similarly, any non-U.S. company that wants to launch
from the U.S. or to reenter to the U.S. also needs a license from
us. The idea is that under international treaty, the launching state
is ultimately responsible if damage is done. How can the U.S. protect
itself from being sued or having to pay damages in the future? Well,
it can ensure that it’s done right and is as safe as we can
make it. We do that by requiring somebody get a license. That’s
The only exception to that is for launches that are conducted by and
for the government. NASA did not need one for the Shuttle, but now
NASA is not operating these systems. Now it’s SpaceX and Orbital,
so they need to get a license even though they’re being done
for the government. The government is not doing those operations.
That’s why there’s a difference.
Although NASA, through the COTS program, views the commercial businesses
as their partners, the FAA does not see them as such because you’ve
given a license to those commercial industries. So NASA is not liable
if there is an issue with the vehicle when it reenters or when it
That’s right. We’re the regulators and we hold the company
responsible for safety. Now there are certainly people, including
many people in NASA, who are nervous about that, and maybe appropriately
so, that the public will blame NASA if something goes wrong. That
may well happen, but from a regulatory viewpoint the FAA holds the
company responsible for safety.
Thank you. That’s very interesting.
In your role as the AA for AST [Office of Commercial Space Transportation],
what do you see as your biggest challenge?
Well, we have a lot of challenges going forward. Certainly the whole
issue of commercial human spaceflight is going to keep us busy in
the years ahead. Frankly, I think one of the most important things
we’re going to have to do as a community is think about the
accident that is going to happen. We know that, as Congress has said,
spaceflight is inherently risky. If you look at any mode of transportation,
we have accidents every day. Thousands of people lose their lives
in automobile accidents, airplane accidents, boating accidents, train
We shouldn’t think that because in aerospace we’re smart
and we try hard and we value safety that we’re going to escape
without any accidents in the future. We need to think about that.
We need to be prepared for that. We need to ensure that the public,
the Congress, and the media have realistic expectations that we’re
going to do the best we can, but we want to be able to have these
operations take place. If there is an accident, we investigate, we
figure out what went wrong, we fix it, and we get back and continue
to operate instead of grounding the fleet for three years and thinking
about whether we should do this at all because somebody got hurt.
That’s not the way America was formed, and I don’t think
that’s the way America should be.
Thank you. Are there any final thoughts or important pieces of information
you’d like to share before we close out today’s session?
Just to reiterate that I’m a big COTS proponent. I think that
the idea was excellent. It probably went under the radar for a number
of years and people were not paying much attention to it, but now
we can start to see the results. Especially in the challenging budget
environment, I think that it will be a great case study, a great role
model, and a great reference for how to operate successful, forward-looking
government programs in the future.
Thank you very much.
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