George Nield to Retire from FAA AST

FAA AST’s George Nield

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

George Nield, who has overseen commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the past decade, will be retiring at the end of March, according to

In his position as associate administration for the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), Nield has overseen the granting of launch licenses and experimental permits to Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA, Orbital ATK and other commercial space companies.

Nield has been credited with as being an effective champion of commercial space since joining FAA AST as deputy associate administrator in 2003. He was elevated to his current position upon the retirement of Patti Grace Smith in 2008.

According to his official FAA biography, Nield has more than 30 years of aerospace experience. He came to the FAA after a stint as senior scientist for Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Advanced Programs Group.

“His previous assignments include working as an Astronautical Engineer at the Space and Missile Systems Organization, a Flight Test Engineer at the Air Force Flight Test Center, and an Assistant Professor and Research Director at the USAF Academy,” the biography states. “He was the Manager of the Flight Integration Office for the Space Shuttle Program at the NASA Johnson Space Center, and later worked on both the Shuttle/Mir Program and the International Space Station Program.

“A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, he holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University, and an MBA from George Washington University. He is also a Flight Test Engineering graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School. Dr. Nield is a registered Professional Engineer and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics,” the biography added.

Although widely praised for his work in promoting commercial space, Nield and his office came under sharp criticism following the fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury died in the accident, which destroyed a suborbital spacecraft the company was testing for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

In its final report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the FAA AST’s initial and first renewals of SpaceShipTwo’s experimental permit in 2012 and 2013 had failed to recognize that Scaled Composites’ had not identified hazards caused by pilot error in its hazard analysis.

Several FAA AST safety experts told NTSB that the office’s management ignored their warnings that the hazard analysis was deficient. They also complained that management bowed to political pressure to keep programs on schedule.

Instead of making Scaled Composites redo the analysis as the safety experts recommended, Nield signed a waiver in July 2013 that exempted the company from requirements relating to pilot and software errors. Fifteen months later, SpaceShipTwo crashed due to pilot error by Alsbury.

The accident report criticized FAA AST for not following through properly on its waiver.

“The Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation did not ensure that Scaled Composites was in compliance with the mitigations cited in the waiver from regulatory requirements or determine whether those mitigations would adequately address human errors with catastrophic consequences,” the NTSB concluded.

The safely board also found the office’s review of the SpaceShipTwo application was hampered by a lack of direct communication between the technical staffs of FAA AST and Scaled Composites,  a lack of a defined line between public safety and mission assurance, and pressure to approve applications within a 120-day time period.

In recent years, Nield has sought additional resources for his office, which he said was underfunded and understaffed in dealing with the rapid growth of commercial space. Those efforts have been only partly successful.