To the Stars, Safely and Together

By Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation

In an address to Congress that made lunar exploration a national priority, President John F. Kennedy stated, “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”

It’s with those words echoing through the past decades that I reflect on 2019 as an incredible year for America in space—we celebrated the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon and the remarkable achievements of lunar exploration missions. We witnessed the first test of the crew-rated SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station, several licensed flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard to space, and the first launch of a spaceflight participant on Virgin Galactic spaceship’s Unity as well as Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser for cargo and eventually humans. And within the next year, we should see additional commercial flights of those vehicles as well as Boeing’s Starliner, all carrying NASA astronauts and paying customers.

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of another first: the first rocket to lift off with a commercial launch license from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. During those 30 years, there have been several revisions to commercial space regulations, and yet the industry has traveled and continues to travel beyond Earth.

Over the last few years, aviation and space stakeholders have been engaging to find ways to minimize disruptions of either industry by the other’s operations while maintaining the current level of safety. Working with ALPA, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation has repeatedly found common ground on prioritizing safety while finding ways to accommodate more and more flights and launches and at the same time reducing delays and costs and increasing efficiency.

ALPA has been down the road we’re now headed. Since its founding in 1931, your organization has been at the forefront of aviation safety and security. The challenge of spaceflight requires the attention and talents of those with experience in growing a transportation sector. And based on my interactions with ALPA’s leaders, pilots, and staff, your union brings firsthand knowledge, wisdom, and experience to the national conversation.

ALPA’s recent white paper on commercial space transportation safety highlights some real opportunities for collaboration. For example, the recent deployment of space-based automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast will likely significantly improve the efficiency of transatlantic flight operations. That same technology can be applied to orbital space operations and help to reduce the impact of space launches on civil airspace.

While the Trump administration enthusiastically supports the space industry, it must continue to put public safety first. The launch of commercial rockets is a very controlled process that must be done in as safe a manner as possible for the public, for our customers, and for our own bottom lines. At the end of the day, safety has to guide everything we do. And it does—including working to use the national airspace system more efficiently as we fly through it getting to and from space.

The revolution of the commercial space industry, which the Commercial Spaceflight Federation has championed for the past decade, has really taken hold in the United States, and it’s now spreading around the world. The success of the U.S. space industry has led other nations to encourage their own entrepreneurs to reach for the heavens. As a result, a record amount of private-sector funding—more than $5 billion—will be invested this year in commercial space companies, and foreign space agencies that once derided the United States for pursuing reusable rockets are now trying to determine how to recover their own launch hardware, engines, and intact boosters.

The future promises to be an exciting one, and with the strong support of ALPA and its members, we can achieve our objectives with safety first and foremost.

Any failure to do so will make us last.

This article was originally published in the December 2019 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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