From Space Regulator to Astronaut: Q&A With George Nield

He spent his government career thinking about space. Then he got to fly.


For the first time ever, more people will go to space as commercial astronauts than as government astronauts in 2022. Admittedly, the government astronauts spent more total time off-world this year than their private counterparts—stints on the International Space Station (ISS) are long and space tourism hops are short—but given the state of the industry, those trends are unlikely to reverse anytime soon.

One of those commercial astronauts was George Nield. He retired four years ago as the head commercial space regulator at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and on March 31, 2022, he became a beneficiary of the industry he once regulated when he boarded Blue Origin's New Shepard for its fourth manned flight. (This flight attracted some additional press attention because it was also supposed to contain the tattooed comedian and adjunct influencer Pete Davidson, though he later pulled out.)

During his regulatory career, Nield—a former Air Force officer who also worked at NASA and the Orbital Sciences Corporation—served in an unusual two-part role as the administrator of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation: He was charged with both ensuring public safety and promoting the fledgling commercial space transportation industry. The state of the industry today suggests he succeeded at each. In July, Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward sat down with Nield to discuss his childhood dreams of space, the state of the industry, and what the future holds.

Reason: You flew on Blue Origin's New Shepard. It was a suborbital flight. What was that like?

Nield: I was interested in aviation and space as a child and used to cut out newspaper articles and pictures in Life magazine of the space chimps and the Mercury astronauts.

I did apply to NASA to become an astronaut and twice made the final cuts—was invited down to Houston for a physical exam and an interview and so forth—but did not make that last selection. I did have an opportunity to work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on the shuttle program, which was very exciting, and had other roles in industry, and then at the FAA. I thought: "Boy, that really would've been neat to actually have a chance to go into space, but it's looking like I probably won't get that opportunity."

And then about a year ago, we started seeing some activity in industry: Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin. Jeff Bezos announced [he was] going to auction off one of the seats on our first human spaceflight that he himself planned to fly on, so anybody that's interested send in your application. So I filled out the paperwork and put in a bid for that, and then watched as the price went out of sight and thought, "Well, I tried." Did not win. But a few months after the auction itself, the company got back with me and said, "You didn't win that seat, but would you be interested in flying on a later flight?"

Blue Origin has designed New Shepard to be a completely autonomous vehicle, which means they do not have a pilot on board [or] on the ground. It's just computers that are operating the system. They do have a fully staffed mission control room of folks looking over the vehicle, but it's pretty much flying on its own.

That may be troubling to some people. My view was that's minimizing the opportunity for pilot errors. So it can be a good thing if you think about it that way.

Because all we had to do was think about the experience and potential emergency procedures, that allowed Blue Origin to streamline the training so that it only was three full days at their astronaut village out in West Texas. And a lot of that time was practicing getting in and out of the capsule and our seats and harnesses, talking on the radio, and then responding to potential emergencies that could arise. So with three days of reviewing the mission with those kinds of activities, I think we all felt pretty confident and pretty comfortable that we were ready to head to space.

After three days of training, it was launch day. Early wake-up, got up about 4 [a.m.], still dark, had a little bit to eat. They had arranged it so that all of us could have our family, friends, and guests there at Astronaut Village to give us a hug and say goodbye, if you will.

Then [we] hopped in the cars and were driven out to the training center again, to get into our flight suits, and one more time review the procedures and practice getting in and out of the capsule. And then, 45 minutes before the scheduled launch time, [we were] driven out to the pad, and that was the first time to see the rocket sitting there, fully fueled, about a 70-foot tall rocket, used liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as propellants, and that's when it all started to seem real.

We climbed up seven flights of stairs to the top. Then it was time to walk over to the capsule. Climbed in, got all strapped in, our trainer checked our straps and gave us some encouraging words. And then she closed the hatch and walked down the seven flights of stairs, hopped in a car and drove a couple of miles away in case something bad would happen at the pad.

And then we started down the countdown. At zero, the engine ignites, and we could see outside the huge windows—every seat is a window seat—the bright orange flame. It was even reflected on the white ceiling of the capsule. Then, after the engine is up to speed, that's seven seconds, we were off.

I've heard NASA astronauts describe liftoff as like a kick in the pants. This was not that way. It was smooth, but very rapid acceleration. So you're being pushed back into your seat about three times the force of gravity. About a minute later, it's the maximum dynamic pressure point, or max q. Then after about two minutes, the main engine cut off, a loud bang, the capsule separates from the booster. At that point, we were able to unstrap and float around.

It was just exhilarating. Did a few somersaults and quick pictures with the other members of the crew. The rest of the time I was just glued to the window. It was just amazing to see the curvature of the Earth and then a very bright blue line, which is the atmosphere that you're above, and then the sky, which is black, blacker than anything you can imagine. It was just the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I literally get goosebumps and a little teary-eyed just telling people about it. It was just spectacular. Pictures don't do it justice.

So we had about three minutes in weightlessness there, time to get back in the seats, strap back in, the capsule starts coming down into the atmosphere. Once again, you're getting pushed back into your seats, this time about five and a half times the force of gravity for just a few seconds—so that's a bunch—but comfortable seats, so it didn't hurt. Felt all right. Then some small parachutes come out to stabilize the capsule and then three big main parachutes and a nice smooth ride down to the ground.

For those who might have seen the touchdowns, it looks like it's a pretty hard impact because there's all this dust that comes flying up, but that's just regular old West Texas dust. They also have some thrusters that fire right at the last split second to make sure it's a nice soft touchdown. So it's basically just like sitting down in a chair firmly. And it took about 10 minutes before the ground crew got out, but we immediately had little drones flying around, taking pictures. Then they opened the hatch and [I] went over to hug my wife after having successfully completed that lifelong ambition.

You last spoke with Reason a decade ago, when we featured you as one of the "rocket men" profiled in our last space issue. You said the government was going to play a much smaller role in space, and you were excited about that. Were you right?

This is a very exciting time for space in general and commercial space in particular. We are right in the middle of what I consider to be a major transformation of how we operate in space.

If you go back to the dawn of the Space Age, almost everything significant that happened in space and all the major milestones and historic achievements were done by the government. Whether we're talking Project Mercury or Gemini or the Apollo moon landings or 30 years of flying the space shuttle and then designing, building, and living and working on board the International Space Station, it's always been the government that was responsible for planning and developing and carrying out these programs. But going forward, that is not necessarily going to be the case. We saw some glimpses of this in the past years, and I think now we're starting to see it really come true that private industry is starting to play a very significant role.

You worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, and most of your career there overlapped with the so-called learning period for commercial space. Congress said, essentially, we are not going to allow regulators to interfere too much with private space. Companies have to make it clear what the risks are to people who are going, they have to get informed consent, and then there's a role in protecting the general public. Did that learning period make what we're seeing today possible?

The [FAA] Office of Commercial Space Transportation, where I worked, is rather unique when it comes to regulatory entities. It has a twofold statutory mission. First of all, to ensure public safety during commercial launch and reentry activities. But then secondly, to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space transportation. And I think that combination has been one of the keys to the significant progress that we've seen over the years.

The learning period is still in place. Congress has still mandated some limits on regulatory authority that expire next year in 2023. There was a renewal, I think, in 2015, and at that time you actually argued that it was time to move out of this learning period, into a more traditional regulatory phase. Can you talk about why that is? You're clearly not hostile to the private sector. So what was the thinking in 2015 when you said it's time to take off the training wheels?

The best framework would be a situation in which industry, government, and academia would be willing to work together, talk together, to collaborate in order to improve safety. So that is a separate issue than "Do we make it hard for them to fly?" and so forth. If we expect instead that each company is going to have to learn how to do this safety all on its own without having access to lessons learned from other systems by other companies, then I think that would be a shame, because you'd have to relearn every lesson the hard way. So the question is how can we move forward in a way that is going to enhance the safety while not being burdensome to industry. I think that's possible to do.

There are many critics of NASA who say that the agency has become insufficiently tolerant of risk and that's why the U.S. has failed to sustain its initial incredible record on manned spaceflight—until very recently. What is the correct framework for regulators to think about risk? You say we would never compromise public safety, but that can still mean a lot of things.

There are mathematical models that one can use in terms of what's the failure probability, and where are these operations being conducted: Is it near a populated area or is it out in the ocean or in the desert? Those are important factors.

There actually is a number of the expected casualty figure that is calculated ahead of time, and that's supposed to be less than 100 in a million. You would have to have 10,000 flights before a member of the public was injured or killed in order to satisfy that.

At the same time, the office so far has had a very good safety record working with industry. There have been more than 500 FAA-licensed or permitted launches since the office was established, and none of those launches has had a fatality, serious injury, or significant property damage to the uninvolved public, which is the mission that the office has been given. So that part is good. The challenge is to make sure that the government will allow industry to use advanced technologies and new approaches in order to achieve the kinds of improvements that we'd all like to see in terms of cost and safety and reliability.

The most high-profile incident in terms of safety during your time at the FAA was the 2014 Virgin Galactic crashVSS Enterprise, that was broadly reported as being mostly about pilot error. Luckily no one in the general public was hurt or killed. As a regulator, what was your experience of that? And what's going to happen when the next incident like that occurs? 

I remember when I first started covering this area and everybody in the industry felt confident about being left alone until the first big accident. There was this almost superstitious invocation of the first big accident. Arguably that was the first big accident.

So this was a test flight with test pilots on board and as the investigation was completed, the conclusion basically was some things could have and should have been done better, but it was essentially a pilot-error type of situation. After reviewing all that, the company and the government are comfortable that changes can be made to prevent that type of occurrence from taking place.

I think it's important to recognize that we have lost people on NASA missions as well: the Apollo fire and space shuttle Challenger and space shuttle Columbia. So it's not just like government has [gotten] this perfect and industry is the one that is taking the chance. It's also helpful to recognize that we see fatal accidents in all modes of transportation—aviation, boat, railway, cars on the highway—every year. We try to do the best we can of preventing them, but they still take place. When one occurs, we don't shut down the industry.

Can we make space frequent enough and accessible enough and routine enough such that even when accidents do occur—and they will occur—we can learn from them, but not just stop everything? That's the story of how aviation developed. We had many accidents over the 100 years of aviation development until we were able to get enough experience and understand what's important and what's not, what we need to focus on, what kind of regulatory system is appropriate. And now flying is the safest way to travel that we have, and my hope would be [that] we have that same kind of evolution for our human spaceflight.

Can you expand a little more on the comparison between commercial aviation and manned spaceflight? It's a natural place to look for guidance. But if you look at, say, the 60 years after the Wright brothers compared with the last 60 years, it looks very different. We moved much more quickly into the commercialization phase where an ordinary person could buy a ticket on an airplane. Why is space different?

The environment that we're talking about is different. The cost is different. The risk is different. But I think the difference is that the government didn't design, build, own, and operate the Wright brothers' aircraft. Think about how aviation would've developed if that had been the scenario! That's really what we were faced with for space in the early years.

What do you think the biggest barrier is now to the commercial space sector scaling and becoming something more akin to commercial aviation?

That's the question I'm wrestling with right now. There have actually only been a little more than 600 people in the whole world who have ever flown to space. Having had that experience myself now, it is just an awesome experience. My takeaway from that is we need to figure out how to get those numbers up. It needs to be less expensive—and it needs to be safer, because some people are concerned this is too risky. And frankly, we need more companies, more rockets, more spaceports in order to scale this up so that we can have more activity to make it more like aviation. I think a lot of people in the general public really don't understand what this is all about and what's involved. When they hear there's [a] spaceport [that's] going to be in their neighborhood or near their city, then that brings up all kinds of fears and misunderstandings as to what that means and what the impacts might be. We all need to do a better job of explaining what this is all about, what the potential benefits are, and the risks, and then see where we can go from there.

When was the space industry most in danger?

I think a key moment was the combination of the [Ansari] X Prize, which offered $10 million to the first nongovernmental team that could demonstrate it could take people up to 100-kilometer altitude and safely back, and then do that same thing again within two weeks. And then the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, which decided who would be responsible for regulating this type of operation and how they would do it. There had been a lot of debate prior to that: Should we treat this like aircraft? Should they be certified? Do we have to prove that it absolutely has to be 100 percent safe before we are going to allow anybody to fly on them? That could have gone in a different direction and we would not be where we are today.

What's coming next? Do you think that there are more players, new innovators out there that the general public hasn't heard of yet? Or do we know the cast of characters now, and we just have to wait for them to get up to speed?

I think we're going to see changes continually. Some of the same players will continue, but new ones will pop up. In the old days, we used to have programs one at a time: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. One company, one system—and in between systems, there might be a break. Now there are actually six U.S. companies that are designing, building, testing, or operating vehicles that are designed to carry people into space, which is incredible. SpaceX, Boeing I believe by the end of this year is going to be able to take people up to the space station, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Lockheed Martin with Orion. That is great because it's not unrealistic to think that there will be technical problems or an accident at some point in the future, and we don't want to be in the situation where everything comes to a stop. So now there's other alternatives, there's other choices, and I think that bodes well for the future.

Can you imagine a future where people have brand loyalty to their space company, the way they do with cars or airlines?

Yes, but there's lots of different flavors of this. I see a lot of people criticizing the space billionaires. "Oh, they're not really astronauts because they didn't go into orbit, or they didn't fly long enough or high enough, or they didn't do this as part of their job." But why not let everybody decide? If they don't want to go, they don't have to buy a ticket. A lot of people should want to go. It's an awesome experience. And as I look at the future, I think we're going to see a lot more of this—call it space tourism if you want. People that would love to have that experience, and now we're going to have more of a chance to do it when it's more affordable and safer, hopefully. I think we're going to see other things happening in orbit as the International Space Station comes to the end of its life.

Now NASA is working with four different companies that potentially have replacement commercial space stations, and then there's one very exciting opportunity that I see just around the corner: point-to-point transportation through space.

So one example of that would be the Starship that Elon Musk and SpaceX are building right now. That's being designed to colonize Mars and to take lots of people and equipment to the moon, but that same system has the capability to fly from one place on Earth to any other place on the earth in an hour or two.

Think about how that could change things, whether for national security or technological competitiveness or just how we do business every day, how we communicate. I think that could be a huge game changer. I think that may be coming sooner than a lot of people think.

You mentioned space billionaires. What's your response to people who say those guys are wasting their money, that there are plenty of problems here on Earth, and that they should focus on those?

The nice thing is we are not talking about tax dollars. We're not talking about somebody in government deciding how we're going to spend our money. These are people that have accumulated a fair amount of funding and are choosing to invest because they're passionate about space. Richard Branson envisions having the first global spacelines. Jeff Bezos talks about having millions of people living and working in space to benefit Earth. And Elon Musk wants to make us a multi-planetary species. Those are pretty bold, big ambitions that I think can have a lot of benefit for a lot of people, and they're willing to put a lot of their own money on the line to make that happen.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.