Ask someone to identify the pivotal individuals in commercial spaceflight, and a few names are likely to come to mind. There’s Elon Musk, of course, whose SpaceX is making inroads in low-cost space access, reusability, and launching humans into orbit — and maybe one day to Mars. There’s also Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic is trying to make commercial human suborbital spaceflight a reality; and Jeff Bezos, with both suborbital and orbital ambitions.
Many in the industry, but probably almost no one outside it, might mention another person: Patti Grace Smith, who served as FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation for more than a decade. Smith, who died unexpectedly June 5 after a private battle with pancreatic cancer, helped shape the regulatory landscape that makes what Bezos, Branson and Musk are doing possible.
“The commercial space industry owes a huge debt to Patti Grace Smith,” said Bruce Pittman, senior operating officer of the National Space Society who also works on space commercialization issues at the NASA Ames Research Center’s Space Portal Office. “There might not be a commercial spaceflight industry were it not for Patti’s leadership.”
That might be hyperbole, but if so, it’s no more than a mild exaggeration. Smith led the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, known in the agency’s nomenclature as AST, from 1997 to 2008, balancing the office’s dual mandate to protect the safety of the uninvolved public and also encourage, facilitate and promote a commercial space transportation industry that was undergoing significant changes.
One of the first major issues she had to deal with involved reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). The office, since its inception in the mid-1980s, had handled expendable rockets, but by the late 1990s numerous companies were proposing to develop RLVs. However, while the FAA could license launches, it had no authority under existing law to regulate their landings, putting the development of those vehicles into question.
The industry sought, and Smith supported, proposals to give AST the ability to license reentries, which Congress granted in a 1998 commercial space act. As it turned out, the RLVs proposed in the 1990s, from Lockheed Martin’s VentureStar to Rotary Rocket’s Roton, never flew. However, that authority paved the regulatory path for others to follow, including SpaceX’s efforts to develop a reusable Falcon 9 as well as commercial crew and cargo spacecraft by Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.
Even as the RLVs of the 1990s faded away, done in by technical and financial problems as well as a lack of a launch demand given the failures of many proposed satellite constellations, a new market emerged: suborbital spaceflight. The X Prize offered $10 million for the first privately developed suborbital vehicle that could take three people to at least 100 kilometers, and do it again within two weeks. More than a dozen teams started work on vehicles, most notably Scaled Composites with its SpaceShipOne.
Here, again, the industry ran ahead of law. Should suborbital RLVs that carry people, particularly winged vehicles like SpaceShipOne, be treated like launch vehicles or aircraft? Many in industry wanted them to be treated as launch vehicles and regulated by AST, but Scaled Composites’ Burt Rutan wanted SpaceShipOne to be treated like an experimental aircraft, in much the same way his previous innovative aircraft designs were.
“It looked like an airplane, and its designer wanted to call it an airplane,” recalled Jim Muncy, principal of space policy consultancy PoliSpace. The problem with that, from the rest of the industry’s point of view, is that allowing commercial suborbital flights would then require a certification process used by the FAA in aviation that is both extensive and expensive. “What was absolutely vital to us was that, after you got through the R&D phase, we not face certification.”
Smith fought for the industry, and against Rutan, and won. In late 2003, she reached an agreement within the FAA that defined “suborbital vehicle” and “suborbital trajectory” so that SpaceShipOne and other such vehicles would be within the purview of AST. A year later, after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize under a launch license, those definitions became law as part of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act.
Her work, said Muncy, allowed the X Prize “to lead to a real industry, instead of just an experimental aircraft.” And while the industry may not have developed as quickly as what advocates had hoped a decade ago, progress might be even slower without the regulatory structure she helped create.
Smith was known for her ability to work both with industry and within the FAA. She became head of AST around the time the office, originally established as an independent office under the Secretary of Transportation with few dozen staff, was moved within the far larger FAA. “Her strength of mind and character convinced multiple FAA administrators that space should be its own line of business next to the big dogs of aviation safety, air traffic and airports,” Muncy said.
Her contributions continued after she retired from AST, and government service, in 2008. She worked as a consultant for Virgin Galactic, among others, sat on the NASA Advisory Council and served as vice chair of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board.
As recently as April she was at conferences and meetings, showing no signs of the cancer that would soon claim her life, which was why her death took so many in the spaceflight community by surprise. “I just saw Patti a couple of months ago and outwardly seemed her usual wonderful self,” said Courtney Stadd, who was director of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation in the mid-1980s.
“Those of us that had the privilege to know and work with Patti saw so clearly how special a person she was,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “Her leadership at the FAA helped transform our industry.”
Perhaps her effectiveness in the job came from the fact that the professional challenges she faced were modest compared to what she experienced earlier in her life. Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s, she was one of 12 plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to integrate a local high school. That case, Lee vs. Mason, became a milestone in the civil rights movement and eventually integrated schools statewide.
In that effort, she faced the possibility of going to jail, which puts the regulatory and bureaucratic challenges of spaceflight in perspective. “She was someone who saw the worst that this country has to offer, yet never stopped seeing the best in people,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.
That might well explain her effectiveness at AST. For a regulator, the easiest and safest thing to do when someone proposes something outside the established bounds of law and regulations is to simply say “no.” There can be no launch accidents if there are no launches. But for an office also charged with promoting an industry, and a leader willing to see the best and not just the worst, Smith was able to stretch the bounds of what was possible, and turn a “no” into a “yes.”
And, for an industry that seeks to grow, and do things not contemplated before, it needs people who can find a way to say “yes” when “no” is the easy way out. The commercial space transportation industry might well exist had Patti Grace Smith not served as head of AST, but it would probably be smaller, and less interesting, than what she helped enable.