<img height="1" width="1" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=205228923362421&amp;ev=PageView &amp;noscript=1">

The human experience in spaceflight with Dr. George Nield.

Where are we with point to point space travel and what is it like to experience a suborbital spaceflight? We answer those questions with Dr. George Nield.





Space travel has changed so much in a short period of time. Who better to talk about the advancements of point to point space travel and share the experience of flying to the Kármán line than Dr. George Nield, former Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, Blue Origin Astronaut and Head of the Global Spaceport Alliance.

You can connect with George on LinkedIn and find out more about the Global Spaceport Alliance on their website.

Remember to leave us a 5-star rating and review in your favorite podcast app. 

Miss an episode? Sign up for our weekly intelligence briefing, Signals and Space, and you’ll never miss a beat.

Audience Survey

We want to hear from you! Please complete our 4 question survey. It’ll help us get better and deliver you the most mission-critical space intel every day.

Want to hear your company in the show?

You too can reach the most influential leaders and operators in the industry. Here’s our media kit. Contact us at space@n2k.com to request more info.

Want to join us for an interview?

Please send your pitch to space-editor@n2k.com and include your name, affiliation, and topic proposal.

T-Minus is a production of N2K Networks, your source for strategic workforce intelligence. © 2023 N2K Networks, Inc.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space. I'm Maria Varmazis, host of the T-Minus space daily podcast. Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content that takes a deeper look into some of the topics that we cover on our daily program. We hope you enjoy.

[ Music ]

Space travel has changed so much in a short period of time. So who better to talk about the advancements of point-to-point space travel and share the experience of flying to the Karman line than Dr. George Nield, former associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, Blue Origin astronaut, and head of the Global Spaceport Alliance. We start off by asking the question, when are we going to see point-to-point space travel?

>> Dr. George Nield: That's a great question, and I think it's going to be a lot sooner than many people think. One of the differences is, unlike in the 1970s or 1980s when people might be advocating for governments to spend billions of dollars to develop systems that can replace the space shuttle or be a national airspace plane and so forth, and then, wow, we can do some amazing things with that. Industry has gotten a vision, and they are already off raising funds, testing systems, doing design trades, and starting their manufacturing and ground testing of these kinds of systems. There's a half-dozen companies in the US alone that are focused on doing this. And so government is important and they can make a huge difference, but it's really along the lines of deciding what laws, what policies, what regulations, what funding do they want to invest to allow this kind of activity to take place, as opposed to actually being in charge of developing a system. And there's a tremendous range of different kinds of vehicles that are being looked at. So it's presenting a lot of different opportunities. Winstream [phonetic] certainly is. SpaceX with Starship, that's being designed to colonize Mars and to take NASA astronauts down to the surface of the Moon. Great. But that same vehicle is going to have a capability to take people from one point on the Earth to the opposite side of the planet in just an hour or two. And that is going to be a huge gamechanger not only just in terms of how we travel, but also how we communicate, how we do business. I think it has the potential to really shrink the planet, if you will, in terms of allowing people not only to have face-to-face interaction but to visit family and friends in other parts of the world and to get to know other countries, other people, other societies, other cultures, which is got to be a good thing the way the world is today. So a lot of opportunities there. But SpaceX is not the only one looking at this, there's a number of other companies that have concepts, some vertical takeoff and landing, some horizontal takeoff and landing, with different levels of capability. A number of them are similar in size to a business jet on the order of 20 people or so that could be carried, or the equivalent amount of packages or cargo. But they can fly at Mach 5 or Mach 10, 5 or 10 times the speed of sound and really shrink the time that it takes to go from the US to Australia or Japan or Europe. And I think that's just going to make a tremendous difference. The military is starting to get their arms around this type of capability. They have a program called Rocket Cargo, where they're interacting with SpaceX and Blue Origin and Rocket Lab and some other companies, to try to understand what could this mean and how could such a vehicle be helpful in terms of responding after a natural disaster or some kind of humanitarian crisis or actual or anticipated military actions such that you can immediately move large amounts of cargo or people to the other side of the planet. But I don't think this should be really just a military issue. This has huge potential for civil, commercial, and national security applications. Which is why I would love to see other parts of the government and administration and Congress and departments really starting to think about this and talk about this and having us begin discussions with our allies around the world in terms of how would something like this work. Because the time to start talking about this and to plan this is now, not after you've got a vehicle sitting on the runway ready to go.

>> Maria Varmazis: We know many companies are working on the technological side of this puzzle, so to speak. There's the technology, the materials, the propellant, all those things, those are problems that in time will be solved or are being solved right now. We're talking about a lot of different countries coordinating on something that's -- you know, airspace gets really complicated when you start talking about something like this. I mean, how on earth does that work when you're talking about that kind of international coordination on a somewhat unknown quantity at this point?

>> Dr. George Nield: It's going to be a challenge, and it may turn out to be an even greater challenge than the technical aspects, which is sort of surprising. But certainly, we want to make sure that people know this is not military action, but it's going very high and very fast. And that presents some benefits too, because it might make it easier to coordinate in terms of other traffic if you're well above typical airline transportation. And of course, one big question mark has always been, well, what about sonic booms? Okay, we need to look at that. But if you're flying in a vehicle that is at 150,000 feet, you probably wouldn't even hear that on the ground. So this is not like a Concorde going a little bit faster, this is a completely different way of traveling.

>> Maria Varmazis: I know many people who will be early adopters of this or folks who are really enthusiastic about it. Thinking ahead, as it becomes more proliferated, there are going to be safety questions. There are going to be people who are going to be just nervous about doing point-to-point transportation in suborbital space. So what are your thoughts on that; what you thoughts on proving the safety or making sure that maybe there's a PR campaign around safety on this kind of thing?

>> Dr. George Nield: In the United States today, we handle space transportation very differently than we do aviation. And so whereas we certify aircraft, we license the operations for space transportation. And if you want to fly on top of one of these rockets, then you actually have to be briefed in terms of what are all of the hazards, the risks, what could go wrong -- you could be injured, you could even die. Are you still interested in going on the flight? If so, you need to sign this piece of paper and go. It's called an "informed consent regime," similar to what you go through with a major medical operation. So that's a completely different situation. And although other countries, at least initially, were somewhat skeptical about approach, they wanted to insist, no, these have to be exactly as safe as an airplane before we're going to allow anybody to try it. Interestingly, it turns out that allowing people to experience some risks like this enable us to learn a tremendous amount and accelerates the development process. As long as we're ensuring that the uninvolved public -- the folks who are not riding on the rocket, on the ground -- those folks are kept safe. So public safety is number one, for sure. But recognize for those who are actually going to take part in these spaceflights, at least for now, those are done with some amount of risk that you need to accept. So that presents some interesting challenges and opportunities for things like point-to-point transportation. It may turn out that a lot of people who are perfectly comfortable flying on an aircraft are not going to want to try some of these advanced things right away. Fair enough. But I think there probably are enough people who are willing to give it a try that there's some potential payback, if you will, for the development fund that is going into the activity so far. It turns out that there are more than 150 million people who every year fly on an aircraft flight longer than 10 hours.

>> Maria Varmazis: I'm one of them. Yeah, done it.

>> Dr. George Nield: So if just a small fraction of those people could be convinced, how about giving this a try, if it's the same amount of money or maybe just a little bit more, to drastically shrink the time that it would take to do this type of a mission, that would provide more potential revenue and than is spent for all of the launching of satellites that we're doing today. And so that is a mind-boggling opportunity for companies if they can figure how to do this, do it safely, and do it well.

>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back after this quick break.

[ Music ]

So we were talking about assuming the risk of taking this kind of flight. So you have done that, last year in fact. So you flew on the Blue Origin New Shepard. And I know you've talked a lot about this, but could you indulge me a little bit and tell me about your experience please?

>> Dr. George Nield: Yes. It was an amazing adventure. So I have been working in the space programs of our country basically my whole career, in the Air Force and working for NASA and then at the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation. And so at this point in my life, and having retired from the government now, to have the opportunity to personally experience spaceflight, it was just an incredible opportunity. So to start off, the folks on the flight, there were six of us. We flew into El Paso and stayed in a hotel overnight and then woke up the next morning and there were a number of Rivian electric trucks that drove us out to the launch site. It's a couple-hour drive from El Paso to get out to Van Horn and then eventually the launch site itself. Really different than, say, a Cape Canaveral. It's very much out in an area without many people living there, which is a great thing from a safety perspective if you're boarding rockets and so forth. Different companies have different kinds of systems. What Blue Origin has come up with is a system that is fully automated. So there was not a pilot on board. There was not a pilot on the ground controlling the rocket. It's the computers that are flying things. And again, some people might be concerned about that. But, you know, the flipside of that is, well, you don't have to worry about pilot error if there's no pilot, once you've got the software working and you've got a good system.

>> Maria Varmazis: No human factor in that situation.

>> Dr. George Nield: Yeah. So that offers an interesting opportunity to really streamline the training. Because we didn't have to worry about having to land the vehicle or what switches to use or what displays need you to push a button on and so forth. Instead, they've got it set up with three days of training, and we practiced over and over and over again in their simulator what the flights would be like. But it's pretty much on how to get in and out of your seat, both on launching conditions on the ground and then like you're going to float around in weightlessness, how to understand the displays, how to talk on the radio, and then how to respond to emergency situations. And so by the time we got to launch day, everybody felt well-prepared and ready to go. So that's a completely different scenario than when you talk to Eileen Collins and other NASA astronauts who had to train for years to be able to fly the space shuttle, for example. So launch morning, early wake up, got to meet up with our family and friends before launch. And then 45 before launch, we drove out to the rocket on the pad, climbed up seven flights of stairs, and strapped into the capsule. And then we had the typical go/no-go pulls from mission control, with a nice set of very capable engineers that are overseeing the operations, and then 5-4-3-2-1, ignition. The rocket engine starts and when they're up to speed, you're going. And unlike some of the other astronauts that I've talked to who describe liftoff as a kick in the pants, this was rapid acceleration but very smooth. There's no solid rocket boosters that have a rapid acceleration. And, you know, it's exciting, it's thrilling, lots of things to pay attention to. About a minute after that, you go through the maximum dynamic pressure (max Q). A little over two minutes, main engine cutoff. And then a few seconds after that, bang, the capsule separates from the booster, and then we're allowed to un-strap our harnesses and float around. Just an exhilarating feeling of weightlessness, doing summersaults, and you just have to smile and laugh, and it's just such a joyful experience. But a highlight of the flight by far was the view. You look out of these huge windows and see the curvature of the Earth and this thin blue line that's the atmosphere that you're above. And you look above that, and instead of seeing blue sky, it is black. The blackest black that you could imagine. And the whole picture is the most beautiful thing that I have ever experienced in my life. I just get goosebumps telling people about it. It was just incredible. Pictures and videos do not do it justice. So about three minutes of weightlessness, then it's time to strap back into your seats and start descending back into the atmosphere. And once again you're pushed back into your seat. Then the parachutes come out and a nice, smooth descent, and then touchdown. And the whole thing lasted only about 10 minutes, but it was just an incredible experience. The ground support team drove out within just a few minutes, opened up the hatch, and we were able to greet our families. And just a remarkable adventure. Just an incredible experience.

>> Maria Varmazis: I got goosebumps listening to that. That's absolutely incredible. Thank you for sharing that.

>> Dr. George Nield: So just a comment about -- people ask me, so what are you going to do now? Oh my goodness. It was such an amazing experience, and one that only 650 people in the whole world have ever had the opportunity to go through.

>> Maria Varmazis: I know, yeah.

>> Dr. George Nield: We have to figure out how to allow more people to have this experience. So that means more companies, more rockets, more spacecraft, more space boards. We have to figure out how to make these flights safer, more reliable, and lower cost, so that more people can have this life-changing experience.

>> Maria Varmazis: You described the view that you saw, and that sounds like you had the overview effect, as they say, that cognitive shift, once you see that beautiful thin line of our atmosphere that protects us of the harmful radiation from space. I mean, what shifted for you when you came back to Earth? Were there any changes that you noticed within after you returned?

>> Dr. George Nield: So again, some people would even question, oh, is it possible to have the overview effect after only 10 minutes? But it certainly is a life-changing experience, at least for me. And you realize how huge, how vast, how beautiful the universe is, how small each of us is, and what a special place to live the Earth is; and yes, we have to do all we can to take care of it. It really puts things into perspective. Don't worry about some things that you might worry about beforehand, and it's just an incredible experience and an experience that I hope many more people can have in the future.

>> Maria Varmazis: Given the incredible career you have and how much experience you have in aerospace, and then you also got to become an astronaut too, which is just an amazing thing. Did your flight give you maybe a new insight or appreciation into spaceflight or maybe the aerospace industry in general?

>> Dr. George Nield: Yes. I think one huge opportunity that those of us in aerospace have is to try to do a better job of talking about space and its importance and the experience to the rest of the public. I think in the past, we've tended to stress science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) subjects. Yes, we need people that are good in that, absolutely. But if you think about the long-term vision -- Richard Branson wants to have his space lines. Jeff Bezos talks about having millions of people living and working in space to benefit Earth. Elon Musk wants to make humanity a multi-planetary species. So again, those are very ambitious goals and they're going to take a long time to achieve. Got it. But as we start to have commercial space stations, Moon bases, scientific sites on Mars and so forth, it's going to take a lot of different skills, a lot of different kinds of people to do this, not just test pilots, scientists, engineers. We need those, for sure. But also mechanics, technicians, welders, bakers. We need artists. We need painters. We need authors, storytellers. We need all kinds of different skills, all kinds of different people. We need space lawyers. We need communicators. We need administrators. We need people who are basically hotel managers that can oversee the operations and keep track of finances. And so I guess my message and one I hope will get out there in the future is that if you have a passion for space, stick with it because there is going to be a place for you. So if you love engineering and science, that's fantastic. But if you have other strengths, other interests, other backgrounds, there's still going to be an opportunity for you to make a difference and to be a part of all this.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: And that's it for T-Minus Deep Space for June 17, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of our podcast. You can email us at space@n2k.com, or submit the survey in the show notes. Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Tre Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. Our chief intelligence officer is Eric Tillman. And I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening.

[ Music ]

Similar posts

Stay in the loop on new releases. 

Subscribe below to receive information about new blog posts, podcasts, newsletters, and product information.