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Secretary Ray LaHood Remarks as Prepared Winning the Future in Commercial Space Commercial Space Transportation Conference

Thank you, George, for that great introduction – but, more importantly, for the great work you’re doing every day.  We’re very lucky to have you.  We’re also lucky to have Randy Babbitt, our outstanding FAA administrator.

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy committed to landing an American on the moon within a decade.  But, as we all know, it didn’t happen in ten years.  It took just eight.  It happened because once the president set that daring goal, thousands of scientists and engineers rolled up their sleeves and got to work.   It happened because Americans dream big dreams and do big things.

Standing at Point A, we may not always see a clear path to Point B, but we know we’ll find a way to get there.  It was no different when President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act into law in 1956.    He didn’t specify exactly how or where each mile of road would be paved, but he knew that building highways would help our country grow and prosper.

It was no different when President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862.  He couldn’t know for certain whether the union would survive – let alone see the transcontinental railroad’s completion.  But he knew that a world-class nation demanded a world-class rail system to move people and products from coast to coast.

Our challenges today are just as great – especially when it comes to the next frontier in America’s transportation system: commercial space.  In his State of the Union speech, President Obama talked about what it will take for America’s economy to grow and compete.   He said that to win the future, we have to out-innovate and out-build the rest of the world.  Well, no one is innovating more than the men and women who are building America’s emerging commercial space industry.

As you know, commercial space holds vast, untapped opportunities for transport, tourism, and economic development.  The era of government’s monopoly on space exploration and commerce is over.  But we’re yet to fully figure out how to help the private sector assume responsibility for taking cargo and customers to low earth orbit reliably, effectively, and – most important of all – safely. 

At the Department of Transportation, we see two immediate challenges. 

First, moving satellites, people, or supplies to low earth orbit.  As you know, that’s been handled by the Space Shuttle for some time.  Now, with only a few shuttle missions left, private companies are stepping up to meet the need.  And they’ll do so with increasing frequency.

Second, designing, building, and testing vessels for sub-orbital space tourism.  Tourist rockets will soon scratch the edge of our atmosphere, allowing passengers to see the earth’s curvature and the dark sky of deep space.  A number of companies are getting in the business.  It won’t be long before we see commercial application.  We want to be as supportive as possible.  But we also need to make sure that space tourism is safe.

Now, I don’t have all the solutions.  That’s why we keep George on payroll.  But I do know they’ll start with two commitments: innovation and partnership.  The Department of Transportation recognizes that this is a time to encourage innovation, a time to explore new ways of working, and a time to re-imagine the relationship between government and industry.

We’ve already begun to put our money where our mouth is.  Take three initiatives we’re already working on: Expanding the Spaceport Grant Program; standing up a center of excellence for commercial space transportation at New Mexico State University; and laying groundwork for a DOT-FAA office on the Space Coast that keeps America’s best and brightest working in Florida – and supporting the emerging commercial space industry.

This is only a starting point.  The pace of innovation in the private sector will only accelerate.  There will be times when you wish the government would keep up.  We’ll do our best.  And what we ask in return is that you make safety your number one priority – just as it is ours.

We find ourselves in an exciting position.    We know that commercial space is a dangerous pursuit, but we also know that it’s important to the nation.  Beyond the tangible economic potential, it’s an important reminder of who we are and what we do.   

We look to the heavens as young children and our minds are filled with wonder.  We may feel small as we gaze upon a billion stars, but we’re inspired to dream big.  And there’s never been a more important time to dream and do big things.

So, my message today is simple.  We’re in awe of the stuff you’re doing.  And we need your help.  Help us answer the questions: How do we make space travel more routine while upholding the highest standards for safety?  How do we make it more affordable? How do we assemble all the pieces of this complicated puzzle?  No one would mistake these for easy issues.  But think of the possibilities if we get this right. 

Before the Pacific Railway Act, Americans traveled by horse or by foot.  The idea of a cross-country journey was unimaginable.  Before the Federal Highway Act, travelers were literally stuck in the mud, forced to take long, inefficient and often inadequate back roads to reach their destination.  Before the Apollo Program, the notion that a man could – in the famous words of President Reagan – “touch the face of God” seemed like science fiction.

It’s remarkable to think that some of us in this room today may travel to space – not as astronauts or Ph.D.s, but as tourists.    Forty-two years after Neil Armstrong took his “small step” and “giant leap” on Tranquility Base, we learned – this week – that a company has booked the first commercial flight in his footprints.  For future generations, commercial space transportation could well be a way of life – another mode of transportation – as commonly used as our roadways, railways, and transit systems.

So, as we take measure of this uncharted territory – as we continue to pioneer it – we must set a new course. We can figure this out.  And I know we will.  Because that’s what Americans do.  We’re innovators.  We’re builders.  And if we tap the timeless American spirit of dreaming big and building big, the future is ours to win.

Thank you very much.

Thursday, February 10, 2011