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« Counterpoint from Vegas | Main | Jess Sponable: The Air Force View »

George Nield, FAA-AST

He's the first talk of Saturday morning.

Three questions that always seem to come up: how soon, how safe and how much? People are asking if anything is happening, because there hasn't been a lot of visible activity lately. Cites Stephen Stills: "somethin' happenin' here, what it is ain't completely clear."

A great deal is happening--lull is only on the surface. Momentum hasn't stalled. We're following a typical time line with other transportation systems. Very little visible activity for a couple years after December 3rd, 1903. Dumont, Wrights, Bleriot, Curtiss were doing a lot, but it wasn't going on in the sky. Shopwork, experiments, bench testing, craftsmanship. Things that needed to be done, but not things that got one into the papers. It was a consolidation of understanding a new technology. We're in a similar period right now.

AST involved with a dozen entrepreneurs at various stages of developing new launch vehicles. Not glamorous work, but essential. Headlines are just prelude to longer-term important developments. Citing Golden Spike, and Lindbergh, after which transportation systems gradually grew and then exploded.

Industry is in the ready room, but not quite ready for the camera. But will be very soon, by the end of the decade. Answer: no launch delays due to paperwork, though there have been struggles to achieve that. We need to recognize that this is new activity, and, keep communications lines open. Learned lessons from SpaceShipOne and will continue to learn as we go.

For safety, we have a good record, but we will not be perfect and everyone needs to understand that. Citing the hundreds and thousands of people who die in other forms of transportation (aircraft, boating, autos). Safety will be at the top and middle and bottom of every checklist, but risk will always be present. Rules will require informed consent of passengers. Flights will be safe as possible, but perfection is not humanly probable. These flights will be spectacular--sensations, sounds, sights...and risk.

Initial market in good shape (fifteen millions sales for Virgin Galactic two years before flight). Question is if it is a large enough market to sustain. He sees promise.

Using example of three-body problem back in the sixties. A similar three-body problem has held us back in human spaceflight--technology, capital and market. A critical mass of private investment is becoming available, the technology seems adequate, and the market is willing (though only a small fraction is able to pay current prices).

Early train travel was expensive, but technological improvements brought it to the masses.

What is FAA doing?

First, what is FAA not doing. Regulating to ensure safety to the uninvolved public, but staying out of the way of critical technological developments.

What they are doing: finishing up rules on experimental permits, and in process of issuing to seven different developers, just granted OK Spaceport license, ahd working with X-Prize Cup. Also continuing to work with ELVs, and now have 178 consecutive launches with no damage or injury to general public.

Question about lunar landing challenge and if we're ready: still feeling way through the experimental permit process--recognizes that time is short, but will see what they have when the time comes.

Question about whether FAA is working develop standards for passenger safety: No, working on informed consent basis for now, though no compromise or change for safety to uninvolved. Need to get experience before we can establish standards for passenger safety, so we don't strangle industry, per Congressional maddate. Not like stepping on an airline.

Stu Witt (Mojave airport manager) asking: have we missed any RLV launches due to regulation?

Are any states of spaceports applying their own passenger safety standards? Not to his knowledge. Wouldn't be a good idea for individual states or communities to come up with their own standards, because it would complicate life.

Do you have enough budgets and people: Things are tight, but attitude is that the next year or so will tell whether or not we'll be able to continue at this level. Expect workload to skyrocket as industry develops. May have to request more resources in future to prevent delays, but this year will give a good indicator.

Will orbital have an extension of the same treatment that suborbital got, and what kind of timeframe does he see? Answer: current law requires separate licenses for launch and entry, but there is no regulatory regime for on-orbit activities (not necessarily a problem, because there is no danger to on-ground public from this). No opportunity yet to license a reusable orbital vehicle, but thinks that regulatory infrastructure is in place to handle it, a few years downstream.

Rocketplane's number one passenger asks if there are any government agencies asking passengers what they think is safe and what they'd like to see? Answer: FAA is interested in input, and potential passengers have same process in the NPRM comments process as everyone else.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 22, 2006 09:58 AM
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