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Civilian Astronaut Wing Ceremony

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao

Civilian Astronaut Wing Ceremony
Washington, DC
Thursday, Feb 7, 2019

Thank you, Deputy Secretary Rosen.

Let me welcome Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose 23rd District includes China Lake and Edwards Air Force Base, as well as the Mojave Air and Space Port.

And let me welcome Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, which is helping to create new milestones in commercial space.

And let me acknowledge former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, and the new Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Wayne Monteith.

And finally, let me welcome the students here today from the D.C. Middle School STEM programs.

Today, we celebrate a commercial space milestone.  It’s the first successful space flight since 2011 of a U.S.-made vehicle, launched from the U.S., with a U.S. crew.  After being carried aloft to nearly 40,000 feet, Lead pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Frederick Sturckow took the VSS Unity up into space, flew her back to Earth as a glider, and safely landed her.  It was picture perfect!

The VSS Unity’s flight was a private sector, commercial space effort.  The ship was built in the U.S. by The Spaceship Company, a California company based at the Mojave Air and Space Port.  Virgin Galactic is the parent company.  It is one of several companies that are creating an era of innovation that historians may one day call, “The Rocket Renaissance.”

Private sector innovators have developed new technologies including air-launch systems, small networked satellite deployment, and re-usable rockets.  They have driven down the cost of space access.  Experts estimate that the cost to put satellites in geosynchronous orbit has fallen 20 percent over the past five years.  Increased use of reusable rocket technology may contribute to even lower launch costs.

Thanks to this innovation, our country has regained its position as number one with a record number of commercial launches in 2017.  And the good news is that we went from 23 commercial launches in 2017, to 33 in 2018.  Three launches have already taken place in 2019, and another 38 are on the planning calendar.  Significantly, the flight of the VSS Unity is helping put the U.S. back in the business of building and flying manned spacecraft.

And we are just at the beginning of an exciting era in which commercial companies are going to work with the U.S. government to ferry crews to the International Space Station.

The Department of Transportation is working hard to enable innovation in this industry.  It is in the process of overhauling the Federal government’s outdated and cumbersome commercial space licensing procedures.  Changes may include consolidation of launch and reentry licensing, and allowing a single license to apply to launches from multiple sites.  The Department will set robust safety objectives, while giving commercial space operators freedom to develop the best designs and solutions to meet these standards.

The Department is also implementing new technology to more effectively manage the national airspace and make launches and re-entries less disruptive to commercial aviation.  In addition, it is working with the Department of Defense on the DARPA Launch Challenge, which will demonstrate the launch capabilities of smaller rockets.

This innovation is generating demand for more launch sites.  The Department has already licensed 12 non-Federal spaceports.  Colorado became the most recent state to receive a license for its first site.  Other potential spaceports are being considered for Alabama, Georgia and Hawaii.

These spaceports will become important economic hubs.  The global space economy is now valued at nearly 400 billion dollars a year, and is expected to triple in value over the next seven years.  Our country’s innovative commercial space sector is positioned to win an impressive share of that market.

This sector will not only generate revenue.  It will drive technological innovation, provide access to extraterrestrial sources of energy and raw materials, and create whole new industries. 

And that means creation of whole new job categories – such as commercial astronauts.

Which brings us back to today’s gathering.

These astronaut wings celebrate more than technical achievement. They celebrate “grit.”  

Virgin Galactic displayed grit when it persevered despite delays and setbacks.

And our two pilots served in the U.S. Marines, where “quit” is not in the vocabulary, but “grit” certainly is. 

Co-pilot Frederick Sturckow is not only a Marine pilot, but a NASA astronaut.  He flew on four Space Shuttle missions to the International Space Station, twice as a pilot and twice as a commander.  He is one of only two people to visit the International Space Station four times. 

And Mark Stucky, the lead pilot, has a story to tell.  He has flown almost everything, from the SR-71 Blackbird to the Goodyear Blimp.  He joined NASA as a test pilot.  When its flight testing program wound down, he flew for a commercial airline.  But he persisted in his dream to get to space, and joined Virgin Galactic.

Fourteen years have passed since the very first Commercial Astronaut wings were awarded.  Today we award the first of what I hope will be many more commercial astronaut wings.  So, I am very pleased today to award both of you these astronaut wings.  They are a testament to your skill, your professionalism, and to your persistence.  These wings also honor the determination of the entire team that designed, built, and supported the flight of the VSS Unity.  Sir Richard and Leader McCarthy, please join me in making this presentation.

Thank you.

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Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2019
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