Once a Regulator, Now a Customer, George Nield Champions Commercial Spaceflight

Once a Regulator, Now a Customer, George Nield Champions Commercial Spaceflight

George Nield retired as head of the FAA’s commercial space transportation regulatory office four years ago and is about to become a customer of one of those companies, crossing the line from air into space on Blue Origin’s next New Shepard flight. A long-time advocate for the commercial spaceflight industry, he sees a robust and exciting future ahead.

George Nield.

Blue Origin’s next flight of New Shepard, NS-20, is scheduled for March 23 from its launch facility near Van Horn, Texas. This is the fourth New Shepard to carry passengers and the 20th overall. [Update: the launch was postponed to March 29.]

In an interview today, Nield told SpacePolicyOnline.com that he was indeed one of the bidders at the June 12, 2021 auction to fly on the first passenger flight, NS-16, along with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. The winning bid was $28 million. That was not Nield’s. Chinese cryptocurrency entrepreneur Justin Sun finally revealed himself to have been that bidder in December, after deciding not to fly on NS-16 (he’ll go late this year instead).

Blue Origin followed up with Nield, though, and a few months ago said they had a place for him. He said he found out on Monday that the flight would be March 23. He and the other five passengers have met virtually. They all show up at the launch site for three days of training on Saturday.

The prices he and the others are paying were not disclosed.

Most of the headlines are that comedian Pete Davidson from Saturday Night Live will be a guest (i.e., non-paying customer) on the flight, but in the space policy community, the big news is that Nield will get a chance to see space first hand.

A former Air Force officer who also worked at NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation, Nield made his mark in space policy circles when he joined the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in 2003.  FAA/AST facilitates, promotes and regulates the commercial space transportation industry. He was Deputy Associate Administrator from 2003-2008 and Administrator from 2008-2018, the years when commercial human spaceflight was getting a lot of publicity, but taking much longer than expected to actually start flying.

That changed last year.

Liftoff of New Shepard-16 (NS-16), July 20, 2021, with Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin launched three passenger flights starting with NS-16 on July 20 with Bezos, his brother Mark, aviatrix Wally Funk, and a German teenager, Oliver Daeman, whose wealthy father paid for his ticket. All three included at least one paying customer. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic sent SpaceShipTwo to space twice, but only company employees, including Branson, were on board. The company has not begun commercial flights yet.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights are suborbital. Passengers get only a few minutes in space and the companies define where space begins differently (100 kilometers for Blue Origin, 80 kilometers for Virgin Galactic). The first commercial orbital spaceflight also took place last year — Inspiration4. The four private astronauts spent three days circling Earth.

After all this time, the era of commercial human spaceflight seems to have truly arrived. Back in 2004 when SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Price, expectations were high that commercial human spaceflights were close at hand. Congress passed a law prohibiting the FAA from creating regulations that might stymie the nascent industry. During a “learning period” originally set at 8 years, companies only had to tell passengers the flights are risky and get their informed consent. As the years went by without any such flights, the learning period was extended to 2023.

That’s next year. The question already is arising as to whether another extension is in order or if the FAA should be allowed to consider additional regulations. A 2015 law, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, called for the industry to develop voluntary consensus standards, but not much progress has been made.

Nield said today developing such standards “is really hard” and “there is not much incentive for individual companies to put their best people on that effort” as they focus on developing, building and flying spaceships. He wants to get everyone talking about what the framework should look like eventually, “whether that’s standards or different ways to grant approvals.”

He anticipates a robust future for commercial human spaceflight, rejecting criticism that it’s just joyrides for billionaires who disrupt air travel for ordinary people. Spaceflights and airline travel can easily co-exist with new technologies that reduce how long airspace must be closed. The suborbital launches like this one go up and straight back down “so it’s a very short period of time and it’s a very small area.” With the number of existing and planned spaceports around the world, daily flights are certainly possible. “And then right around the corner is going to be point-to-point transportation through space.”

For the moment, however, he is just looking forward to his spaceflight. He’s been on a number of parabolic aircraft flights that provide 20 seconds or so of weightlessness, but this will be several minutes and, most of all, he’ll get to see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space.

“What I understand is the photographs and videos don’t do it justice. So that’s the top thing that will really make the flight.”

Afterwards, he looks forward to sharing the experience with others. “I’ve been a passionate believer in human spaceflight and particularly commercial spaceflight for a long time. I enjoy speaking to people about what it means for our country, for humanity, and as an individual experience.”

Joining him and Davidson on the flight are Marty Allen, Sharon and Marc Hagle, and Jim Kitchen. Allen is a turnaround CEO and angel investor. Sharon Hagle founded SpaceKids Global, a STEM non-profit. Her husband Marc is president and CEO of Tricore International, a residential and commercial property development corporaiton. Kitchen is a teacher, entrepreneur and world explorer.

The passenger crew of New Shepard-20 (NS-20). Credit: Blue Origin

Liftoff of NS-20 is scheduled for 9:30 am ET (8:30 am local time at the launch site). Blue Origin will provide live coverage on its website. For planning purposes, it is common for these launches to be delayed for days, hours, or minutes for various reasons, especially weather.

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