The Wall Street Journalreports that George Nield’s decision to retire as head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) at the end of March is related to dissatisfaction over the pace of deregulating space activities.
But Mr. Nield’s leaving, according to industry and government officials, was prompted at least partly by White House and cabinet-level criticism that his initiatives to ease licensing procedures for rocket launches are proceeding too slowly. Members of the White House Space Council, a senior policy-making group, and the Transportation Department’s deputy secretary have expressed displeasure about the pace of change, these officials said.
The retirement, which was a surprise to some industry officials, also comes in the face of escalating pressure by budding commercial-space ventures to streamline federal rules, cutting the time and expense of obtaining launch licenses and approvals to operate spacecraft in orbit and beyond.
Mr. Nield’s decision could end up accelerating moves by top FAA officials, along with other parts of President Donald Trump’s administration, to ease or roll back regulations covering everything from earth-observation satellites to lunar landers to eventually mining minerals on asteroids.
Last week, the White House policy group chose the Commerce Department to serve as the main catalyst to promote U.S. commercial space ventures, effectively taking that role away from the FAA. During internal administration debates leading up to that public meeting, FAA critics pushed to strip the agency of authority over launch licensing, according to two people familiar with the details.
Mr. Nield’s office, which ultimately answers to the Transportation secretary, retained that responsibility but ended up with overall reduced stature.
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 SpacePolicyOnline.com.
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.
Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography Richard Branson Portfolio Oct. 10, 2017 482 pages
On the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, a nightmarish vision that had haunted me for months became a real-life disaster in the skies over the Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, lit its engine and appeared to explode. Pieces of the space plane then began to rain down all over the desert.
The motor had exploded. Or the nitrous oxide tank had burst. At least that’s what I and two photographers – whose pictures of the accident would soon be seen around the world – thought had occurred as we watched the flight from Jawbone Station about 20 miles north of Mojave.
We really believed we had seen and heard a blast nine miles overhead, the photos appeared to show one, and it was the most plausible explanation at the time.
We were wrong. More than two days after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that co-pilot Mike Alsbury had prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather system during powered ascent. The ship hadn’t blown up, it had broken up as the twin tail booms reconfigured the vehicle with the engine still burning at full thrust. (more…)
The House Subcommittee on Aviation held its first hearing in seven years on the FAA’s oversight of commercial space last month. Members heard from a heavily industry-centric panel of experts who largely praised the moratorium on regulations that is in place until 2023.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s scathing criticism of the FAA’s oversight role on SpaceShipTwo prior to the accident was briefly discussed on a couple of occasions, as were the potential conflicts between FAA’s dual roles of oversight and promotion.
Taber MacCallum of World View Enterprises dismissed the criticism of FAA Associate Administrator George Nield and the FAA’s performance prior to the crash as Monday morning quarterbacking. He also called for a permanent extension of the moratorium on regulations.
Michael López-Alegría also claimed that the FAA had done its job properly. He dismissed the idea that regulating the industry would make it any safer.
Dr. George C. Nield, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration | Written Testimony
Dr. Gerald L. Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation Issues, Government Accountability Office | Written Testimony
Mr. Michael Gold, Chair, Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee | Written Testimony
Mr. Michael López-Alegría, Vice Chair, Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee | Written Testimony
Mr. Taber MacCallum, Chief Technology Officer, World View Enterprises | Written Testimony
U.S. regulations for commercial human spaceflight give the wide latitude to develop and fly their launch systems while providing substantial protections about being sued for injuries and deaths resulting from accidents. What follows is is a brief summary of the provisions, most of which have been in place since December 2004. (more…)
“I question whether our insatiable appetite for total safety is serving the needs of the exploring human inside us.”
– Stu Witt, former CEO & General Manager, Mojave Air & Space Port
By Douglas Messier Managing Editor
After he won the $10 million Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne in October 2004, Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan had two goals for the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle he was building for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
He vowed the vehicle would be at least 100 times safer than any human spacecraft that had ever flow. And the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would certify the spaceship in a manner similar to way the agency certifies aircraft.
The House has approved an amendment that would partially restore a requested funding increase for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). The amendment offered by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) would add $250,000 to the office’s budget.
Citing a sharp increase in workloads, the Obama Administration had asked Congress for an additional $1.5 million for Fiscal Year 2016 in order to hire an additional 13 full-time employees for FAA AST. Officials say the plan is to eventually hire 25 full-time staffers.
“FY 2014 was a very busy year for commercial space with a total of 19 licensed or permitted launches. That is more than six times the level of activity that we had in 2012, which only had three licensed or permitted launches,” said FAA-AST Associate Administrator George Nield during the FAA’s 18th Commercial Space Transportation Conference in February.
Against the wishes of federal regulators, the commercial spaceflight industry would get another five years to learn lessons — and, hopefully, actually fly someone into space — under a bill being sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
That’s the word from SpaceNews, which says it has obtained a draft of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act set for markup on May 20 by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The measure would extend restrictions on the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority to regulate the still nascent industry until 2020.
The limits were first put in place in 2004, then extended for three years in 2012. They are due to expire on Sept. 30.
George Nield, who heads up the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said six months before the fatal SpaceShipTwo crash last year that he wants the quasi-moratorium to end in September. He said that there are safety regulations that can be formulated based on 50 years of human spaceflight. He added that without some basic regulations, irresponsible companies with poor safety practices can enter the industry.
Several agencies gave presentations yesterday before the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. Jeff Foust of SpaceNews reported on the following updates:
NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said the agency has delayed a decision on its Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contracts from June to September to allow more time to evaluate bids. Known bidders include SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada Corporation.
Gerstenmaier said Sierra Nevada’s final funded commercial crew milestone — a second drop test of the Dream Chaser shuttle — is now scheduled for December.
Citing a sharp increase in workloads, the Federal Aviation Administration has asked Congress for an additional $1.3 million for Fiscal Year 2016 in order to hire an additional 13 full-time employees for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). Officials say the plan is to eventually hire 25 full-time staffers.
“FY 2014 was a very busy year for commercial space with a total of 19 licensed or permitted launches. That is more than six times the level of activity that we had in 2012, which only had three licensed or permitted launches,” said FAA-AST Associate Administrator George Nield
“We have essentially been relatively flat in terms of resources in recent years,” he added during the FAA’s 18th Commercial Space Transportation Conference last week. “At the same time, we’ve seen that activity level increase by a factor of six. We have been looking at improvements in terms of the different ways to do business to try to stay up with the pace.”
A recent government review of Bigelow Aerospace’s ambitious plans for settlements on the moon did not result in an endorsement of private property rights and ownership on the Moon.
“I want to make clear that the FAA today has responsibility to license launches and reentry and nothing in between,” said George Nield, who is associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the FAA (FAA AST).
FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation George Nield announced today the agency has awarded a spaceport license to Midland International Airport, paving the way for XCOR Aerospace to move its research and development operations there next year.
Nield made the announcement this morning at the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting in Washington, D.C. Midland Airport Director Marvin Esterly was present to receive the license.
XCOR signed an agreement to move to Midland from Mojave, Calif., in July 2012. That move was contingent upon the Midland airport receiving a spaceport license that will allow XCOR to fly its Lynx suborbital spacecraft.
XCOR plans to move to Midland next year after conducting initial flight tests in Mojave.
Looks like the honeymoon between the FAA and the nascent commercial space industry is coming to an end. Or at least the moratorium on government regulation.
George Nield, who heads up the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said earlier this week in Washington that he is against extending the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight when it expires in 2015.
During that period, the FAA is generally restrained from rule making to allow the commercial spaceflight industry to experiment with different designs and systems for getting into space. However, the FAA can act if there is an accident or a close call.
Government regulation of commercial spaceflight could come sooner rather than later, if the FAA’s chief regulator of the industry gets his way.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), under reauthorization legislation signed in February 2012, is barred from writing detailed safety regulations for commercial human spaceflight until October 2015, unless there is a serious accident in the industry before then.
The Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (Comstac), an industry-led group that advises AST, wants more time. The group recommended last year that AST delay rulemaking until eight years after the first licensed U.S. commercial human spaceflight.
But AST Associate Administrator George Nield thinks that is too long to wait.
“The U.S. has over 50 years of experience in human spaceflight,” Nield said here at a hearing of the House Science space subcommittee. “It’s true that none of those carried a spaceflight participant who actually bought a ticket, but as far as I’m concerned, the design and the operation of those vehicles really were independent of who was riding on board.”
To back up his case, Nield recounted a quick history of U.S. crewed missions, from the experimental X-15 rocketplane that took the first U.S. astronauts on parabolic flights to the edge of space through the decades-long space shuttle program that ended in July 2011 after 135 missions.
Nield made his comments during a House Subcommittee on Space hearing earlier this week that examined possible changes to the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act.