NASA administrator Charles Bolden made a surprise appearance Wednesday morning at the 14th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference at the Washington Convention Center. Bolden was not on the conference agenda, but he was squeezed in between FAA administrator Randy Babbitt and keynote speaker Robert Bigelow. Given the audience, Bolden focused his remarks on commercial spaceflight and how important it is to NASA.
“We cannot survive without you,” he said to the approximately 400 people at the conference, representing a wide range of orbital and suborbital vehicle developers as well as others involved with the industry. “I can’t tell you any stronger. We are big fans of commercial, we are huge fans of commercial space.”
He sought to emphasize NASA’s dependence on commercial providers, particularly for crew transportation to LEO once the shuttle is retired. “When I retire the space shuttle… that’s it for NASA access to low Earth orbit,” he said. “The sooner that everyone in this room and around the world understands that, the better off we’re going to be.”
He added that NASA had no interest in competing with commercial providers for crew transportation to LEO, even though the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (aka Orion) included in the NASA authorization act are intended to at the very least provide a government-operated backup to commercial entities. “There’s got to be two people in the ring to have a fight. I’m not in the ring for access to low Earth orbit,” he said. “We explore.”
He also hinted, obliquely, at some congressional criticism or skepticism about commercial crew developers. “We have a difficult road ahead. I don’t want to kid you, a very difficult road ahead, but it’s not because of anybody in this room,” he said. “We have people that make decisions that we’ve got to just convince that we know what we’re doing.”
Bolden’s speech is the latest in a blitz of events by agency leadership regarding commercial spaceflight. Last week deputy administrator Lori Garver visited Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas and Sierra Nevada Corporation (one of five first-round CCDev awardees) in Colorado. On Monday Bolden was at the Stennis Space Center to witness a test-firing of the engines that will be used on Orbital’s Taurus 2 rocket being developed under the COTS program. Bolden also revealed in his speech that he paid a visit last week to Blue Origin’s facilities in the Seattle area; Blue Origin is another CCDev awardee.