Remembering my big sister from another mister

It’s truthful — but woefully inadequate — to say that Patti Grace Smith brilliantly led the Office of Commercial Space Transportation through its first 12 years inside the Federal Aviation Administration. Moving OCST into the FAA was the bureaucratic outcome most feared by the original shapers of the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, and it happened the same year that Congress took away the broader FAA’s authority to promote the aviation industry.

Patti Grace Smith, shown above at the 2011 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, was devoted to mentoring the next generation of space leaders. Credit: Tom Kimmell/Space Foundation

Patti Grace Smith, shown above at the 2011 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, was devoted to mentoring the next generation of space leaders. Credit: Tom Kimmell/Space Foundation

But Patti took on the challenge with the confidence of a seasoned government manager and the quiet steel of her calm persuasion. With just a couple dozen staff, she set about building the credibility of her new organization, redubbed FAA/AST, inside the 50,000- person federal aviation leviathan. Working with an equally-new FAA Administrator, Jane Garvey, Patti made commercial space transportation a fourth line of business in the corporate FAA. Sometimes she had to chase down her peer associate administrators to force them to engage on issues AST needed their help on. At the same time, she was quick to remind her colleagues that while they were one agency, air and space operated under very different statutes.

Beyond the FAA, she reached out to Congress, the Air Force and NASA, always looking for ways to build bridges and promote opportunities for U.S. industry. She quickly earned respect for doing her homework to understand the other agency’s perspective, and for her determination that both organizations could see past their histories to find a solution for a shared problem. By 2003, when pioneering space station visitor Dennis Tito declared that he wanted to invest in the suborbital space tourism industry, there was a clear consensus in Washington space policy circles that if anyone should license and promote commercial human spaceflight, it should be FAA/AST.

Of course, at least one person didn’t like that idea, and he was the brilliant but headstrong designer of the spaceplane that would win the Ansari X-Prize the following year. If ever a regulator was justified in slow-walking a bureaucratic process, it would have been Patti and the contempt the famous engineer showed for the existence, let alone the competence and jurisdiction, of FAA/AST. But Patti had grown up in segregated Macon County, Alabama, and was one of the plaintiffs that forced integration of Tuskegee High School. The experience forged a strength of character that, along with her deep Christian faith, enabled Patti to ignore the brilliant engineer’s antagonism and focus on working with Mojave Airport and XCOR Aerospace, a competing Mojave RLV company, so the airport could be granted the first inland spaceport license in time for SpaceShipOne’s first flight to space in June 2004. After the flight, Patti pinned pilot Mike Melvill with the first FAA commercial astronaut wings.

Much has been said in recent days about that and all the other visible achievements of Patti’s tenure at AST, but what I keep hearing from our mutual friends is how many of them she personally mentored or helped in their careers. Within FAA/AST she trained several young aerospace engineers and policy analysts who “graduated” from her team to go on to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the Defense Department, and Congress.

We often say a departed friend or loved one lives on in their concrete achievements, in the children they raised or the things they built, but also in the minds and memories of the people who knew them. We in the commercial space industry are fortunate to have had the best ideas and energies of Patti Grace Smith for the past two decades, and her departure leaves a huge void. But the veritable army of we lucky space people whose lives she touched cannot dwell on our loss.

Patti would want us to get moving on the job of realizing an incredible human future in space, a future she helped to birth.