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SPEECH | May 6, 2008

MilSpace Conference in Paris


Thanks Dr. Sheldon. Good morning everyone. I appreciate the kind introduction. My mother wrote that [Introduction]. [Laughter]. I take it with me wherever I go. It's mostly true.

I'd like to thank you, Dr. Sheldon for your introduction, and thanks SMI for hosting this. Thanks to our French hosts for the gorgeous weather. Of course what a fantastic place to be, in Paris, for this conference. Their hospitality has been wonderful.

I'd like to thank the embassy staff here who supported me as well. Thanks very much for making our stay so pleasant.

Conferences like this I think are really important. It's a great opportunity for sharing information, for sharing ideas, for building partnerships, making acquaintances that will last. That's so important in our business, the exchange of ideas, and for advancing international dialogue. So it's really a great pleasure for me to be here and join in the conversation, if you will, this morning.

I have a few remarks to make and then I'd like to open the floor for questions and answers at your pleasure during my time allotted this morning.

I'd like to begin by noting a few exceptional achievements here this year that are important to Europe, to ESA (European Space Agency) in particular, and that's the successful installation of the Columbus Science Module on the International Space Station. Over the past decade I've had the opportunity to, along with you, watch this thing called the International Space Station take flight and grow and expand in ever more amazing ways.

My history, as mentioned in the intro, goes back to 1996 with the International Space Station. In those days when I joined the program office it was a paper program. There was nothing on orbit. Some hardware was being manufactured. Nothing had been launched yet, of course.

I remember when I got assigned to the program, I called my father, who had a lot of experience in program management in his aerospace career, because I'd had really no program manager experience, and said, "Dad, I've been assigned to this program called the International Space Station." He said, "Tell me about it, son." I said, "Well, all I know is they're behind schedule, they're over budget, and they have some severe technical problems. What advice do you have?" He said, "Son, you can only go one place in a program like that, and it's up. It doesn't get much worse than that."

That was 1996. And now to see where that space station program has come to today is pretty amazing.

I recall back in those days occasionally giving tours down at NASA to individuals who wanted to come in and learn about the International Space Station. We'd take them through wooden mockups of the modules there. The tour would invariably end with a view of a model further than my arms could reach of what the space station would look like on its completion. And we'd describe it being as big as a football pitch, as wide with the solar arrays, and as long in length with the trusts and the tremendous volume that was going to be on this thing -- and remember, nothing's on orbit yet. People would look at this and say, "Can you really pull this off?" The answer was always, "Not alone, but together I think this international consortium that's going to work hard to make this happen will be able to pull this off."

So it's with a little bit of pride and great joy that I've watched over the last decade from nothing to today, the International Space Station looks a lot more like that model than anyone ever would have predicted as it nears its completion at this time.

There are some other things I recall that cooperation and kind of a can-do spirit have been fulfilled even this year. Back in those days we were struggling with logistics, resupply models, and how we were going to operate this thing once it was built, how we were going to get enough fuel up, how we were getting the oxygen up, supplies for the crew, et cetera, et cetera. And all the equations kept saying that we were probably going to come up short somewhere along the way. It was ESA [European Space Agency] that said we have this concept where we can build an autonomous vehicle that can go up, rendezvous and dock, bring up a large quantity of supplies. Maybe we'd launch it on an Arian 5 and it could maybe even do some re-boost. That's another important thing that we were able to witness this year is that idea reached fruition. An ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] flew this year. ATV rendezvous'd and docked with the International Space Station, brought supplies, and just successfully accomplished its first multiple re-boost to raise the elevation of the International Space Station.

The power of a group of people getting together, sharing a common vision "" that was the key I think in those days. On the program we all had a common vision for the International Space Station. Everyone was dedicated to do the hard work necessary to bring that vision to reality. Then there was this intense desire for international cooperation.

Of course there was always a little competition along the way, but that's okay as well. That typically brings out the best and did bring out the best in them. And the benefits of that cooperation? Well, we have an International Space Station flying today; a laboratory in orbit that will continue to grow in size and being crewed by ever-larger crews, and we will reap the benefits of that.

But a good bit of the benefits were reaped along the way in just learning how to work with each other and to overcome the technological challenges involved in building a space station, one that you didn't put together on the ground before you launched, and literally never saw it completed except on orbit. That in and of itself was a daunting task we confronted. Great technological advances, engineering advances, but even more importantly, advances in learning how to work with each other. And arguably, when you look at some of the various partners on the station, and I would use the United States and Russia as a classic example – two former foes just a few years before the initiation of the space station program – coming together and working in a cooperative fashion. I would say there are some national security benefits there as well.

There was a common platform for dialogue throughout the entire 1990s as we made that transition from the Cold War to the current state, and always there was that area, in spite of other tensions, to come back to work together on and advance the program of the International Space Station.

There are a lot of other examples that we can think about in cooperation in civil space. What I'd like to talk a little bit about today is opportunities for cooperation beyond just civil space, to include military space. I believe there are opportunities where we can cooperate better in military space, and particularly to enhance our use of space for our mutual benefit. Not only for military but for civil benefit; also to improve our national security.

At the risk of revealing my age here, there was a time in my life when there were no man-made objects in orbit. None. Zero. I was alive in those days, some in this room were alive in those days, too. To think about it now, to go from zero to what we can observe today, over 18,000 objects in space, and we know there are many many more than that, is a pretty phenomenal change in the space environment around the planet.

Now of those 18,000 that we observe, a very small number of those are useful and operating satellites today. Quite a bit of them are hazards, actually, and taken up in the form of debris.

What is also interesting is that in this time period, in one individual's lifetime, if you will, to middle age, we have gone from not really needing space at all in the way we live in society and operate our militaries, to actually becoming quite accustomed to having a space capability, so much so that I would argue we, often times, take it for granted. Perhaps even transitioning to a point where we have become dependent on space capabilities, whether they be for the way we live our lives day in and day out, or certainly it is true in the way we conduct military operations.

For example, we can't imagine not having precision navigation and timing in our daily lives or in military operations. Over the horizon global communications, satellite television, these things we just expect to happen when we push the button on our hand-held receivers at home.

Weather forecasting, weather observation has become so important to our daily lives, in our planning, and certainly to military operations.

Missile warning. Reconnaissance. Reconnaissance both for military operations, but also reconnaissance in exploration and understanding discovery of the environment of the planet that we live on.

All of these things didn't exist when I was a young boy and now they're vital to us, they're vital to each of our countries, and really vital to each of us personally in the way we live our lives. We've gone from being accustomed to being dependent, and now we have to start thinking about how we're going to preserve these capabilities for the future.

Let me shift gears here a little bit and take you to a domain that we're all very familiar with. In fact probably a lot of us traveled through to attend this conference. That's the air domain.

Envision flying to this conference from wherever you came in an environment where there was no air traffic control; no surveillance radars to keep track of where everybody is. You just kind of launched off and hoped you arrived safely at your destination without running into another aircraft on the way.

Now that would be absolutely intolerable to us today. In fact we have set up a network around the globe where we not only surveil our air space within our own national borders and take control of the aircraft that fly through that air space for the purposes of safety and efficient operations, but we share that information internationally so we can transit back and forth between each other's countries. It's actually become quite viable.

Now back in the days of Orville and Wilbur Wright it wasn't very necessary. There wasn't a lot of traffic. Of course I'm reminded of the first automobile accident in recorded history in the state of Ohio. It occurred one bright sunny day when two cars ran into each other. What's unique was in the state of Ohio at that time there existed only two automobiles. [Laughter]. Somehow they managed to run into each other. So you can't be too relaxed just because there aren't a lot of things in the environment that you're operating in.

We can't imagine flying about today in our air space around the world without some form of surveillance and warning and understanding of the domain in which we offer our civil aircraft or our military aircraft.

Let's go back to the space domain with 18,000 pieces of observable debris or satellites in it, and probably an ever-growing number in the future. What is it that we want for the future there? What is our desire?

We've talked about it in military terms as situational awareness. Better situational awareness. That translates into the same type of situational awareness you would like when you're driving your automobile, to understand the traffic patterns when you're flying in an airplane, to understand the air traffic patterns; when you're at sea, to understand what is on the oceans, et cetera. It's the same requirement that you have in operating in any domain, an understanding of what's out there. What are hazards to your operations, what are friends, what are potential foes.

In space we have looked at trying to understand this domain from low earth orbit all the way up through geosynchronous orbit. I would argue that we eventually have to go beyond that as we look for travel back to the moon. Multiple nations will be going back there. Eventually we're going to be interested in that traffic pattern as well as traffic patterns around the moon in the future.

So surveillance and understanding of this domain -- although today we're focused in earth orbit -- will certainly expand.

What is important, which is not always apparent to a lot of folks, is that in this case, uniquely, geography on the planet matters. Normally people don't think you have to worry much about geography on the planet when we talk about the space domain because things move around so freely up there. But if you want to understand what's going on in space and surveil the heavens appropriately, then it does matter where you're located on the earth or else you'll have some areas of space that you cannot see. So geography is important to the objective of being able to adequately surveil the domain and placing sensors at appropriate locations around the world.

Now of course no one country can do that. So that begs, I think, for the opportunity to share information in this domain. To build situational awareness and share that situational awareness among nations for their mutual benefit.

At STRATCOM we worry about this every day. People that use the military space assets that STRATCOM is chartered to operate are very happy and expect GPS signals, communication signals, weather pictures, and intelligence pictures to arrive when they ask for them. They're not worrying about satellites running into each other or satellites running into space debris. We are. Part of our job at STRATCOM is to make sure that those collisions don't occur; to make sure the satellites are operated safely. Consequently it's an imperative for us to better understand the domain in which we operate. In fact, from a military perspective, situational awareness in any domain is a first principle. Whether you're a soldier, an airman, a sailor or Marine, you want to first understand the environment in which you are planning to operate in. Again, who is friendly, who might be threatening, what are the hazards to navigation, et cetera?

This has become even more important when we think about space operations today in light of recent activities in space. It has become clear to all, I think, although it had been clear to many of us in the past, that space is not a sanctuary environment. In fact, we can be threatened on orbit. So, from a military perspective, it's all the more important to understand what is up there.

The vision that I would have as a military individual with regard to surveillance of the heavens and establishing situational awareness would be an ability to observe any launch from the planet to observe the satellite as it's separated from the launch vehicle; to be able to observe it as it moved to its final spot in orbit around the earth; and then to be able to observe it, to see if indeed it ever maneuvers at some point. To be able to keep track of it. To eventually, at some point, if not openly shared, try to divine and discern the intention of the operator of that satellite and the capability of that satellite. These are just normal things that any military individual would want to understand about any craft operating in the domain in which they also operate.

Just as we share air situational awareness today, I think for the mutual benefit of both civil air and military air and national security, there is opportunity for us to do the same in the space domain, both for civil, commercial, military and national security benefits.

Another area that I think there is potential for working together on that would benefit not only the military but commercial space activities is in the area of launch. We've seen the launch business change over the years and morph back and forth. We've seen new players come into the launch business, new countries, and we can expect more countries will come into the launch business in the future.

One of the things that none of us has figured out quite yet how to overcome is the dramatic cost of putting things into orbit: estimates from $6,000 a pound to $15,000 a pound, depending on your launch vehicle. I think when I flew on the space shuttle the going rate was about $10,000 a pound, which is a way, I guess, to measure one's self worth. [Laughter]. Step on the scales before flight.

When I found this out, NASA's desire for us to go to the gym every day and work out became apparent. [Laughter]. What the real reason for that was, they weren't concerned about our health so much as maybe shaving a few dollars off the cost of orbit.

So you can imagine a world where rather than paying $10,000 a pound, you could put things in orbit for $1,000 a pound. That's a pretty dramatic change. What would that mean to individuals and countries who would want to invest in the space domain? I think it would create all kinds of new opportunities for new technologies, risk-taking where today we don't take as much risk as we might take because of the relatively exorbitant cost of getting to space.

This is not a new problem that people have been trying to solve. It takes me back to my International Space Station story. Hard problems sometimes can best be solved by cooperation, working together on it.

This is a tough problem. A lot of people are working on it today, but I think there's a great opportunity for international cooperation here and sharing of ideas. A breakthrough in this area would certainly benefit all of our nations and benefit I think the world, quite frankly, in the way we look at space, the way we access space, the type of things we might consider putting in space, and utilize in that environment for the future. So working on more reliable and cheaper access to space I think would be a noble thing for us to come together on.

When I think about space and national security I think about our most precious asset certainly in STRATCOM, and it's not our rockets, and it's not our satellites, but it's our people. I know a problem that we worry about at STRATCOM and in the United States at large is the challenge of making sure that we have that human capital in the future that will be necessary to continue to advance our work in space and our operations in space. We're faced with a challenge of attracting enough young people to the business and then once we attract them, retain them in the business.

Part of the problem is both the military and the commercial industry are competing for the same gene pool, the same set of people. So there's a tension that's created there immediately. But also I think an opportunity. An opportunity to work together to solve this problem or to address this issue if you believe it's a problem, and I do. I believe that we've maybe lost, at least in the United States, a little bit of the edge or desire of our youth to go into the technical fields.

Certainly, I don't think, the feeling's not quite the same as it was back in the ""60s as I was growing up and you watched us go to the moon and walk on the moon. There was this intense desire by just about every kid I knew in the neighborhood to be a part of that kind of program. Now we all didn't run off to become engineers, but there was that spark, that inspiration there that at least introduced us to the possibility and attracted some to the career field.

Part of this though, is not only inspiring people to and educating people and motivating people to enter the career field in space, it's also once you have them in the career fields, and particularly from a military perspective, retaining them. The way to retain people is you provide them a viable career path. You allow them to see a future by staying in the military and continuing to work in the space business. You do that both through the human resource management side, but also by providing them educational opportunities for personal advancement. The type of people that get into this business are the type of people who want to continue to sharpen the business and are desirous of furthering their education as technology advances. It's kind of a natural thing. So offering them the opportunities to continue to educate themselves and to look and have an opportunity to look for a future within the military is important to us.

The United States Air Force, my parent service, has taken this on with this concept of developing a space cadre, a career path, where we value those members of the organization that are interested in space, are space competent, and want to make a career of the Air Force in the space business. You nurture them, you identify them, you make sure their assignments make sense and aren't random, and they actually have room to grow to positions of leadership in the space business, and you offer them educational opportunities along the way.

We have a lot of military exchange programs between our countries where we exchange officers and enlisted at various professional courses along the way. Air Command and Staff College, Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. A large percentage of the students there are international exchange students. I think we need to look for opportunities here as well with regard to space and education in this particular area.

The National Security Space Institute was stood up a few years ago in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And as this institution matures and grows in capability and capacity, I think it's probably a great institution to consider for foreign nationals to come and participate in that educational opportunity. And I think it would be beneficial for the United States to seek out and find educational opportunities overseas as well, for the mutual benefit of the countries involved.

Just how important is this human resource I'm talking about as opposed to the launch vehicle or the satellite? At the end of the day I think it's the ultimate and most vital element of the space program. I'll give you an example where this was highlighted to me particularly this year.

Actually the story begins back in December of last year when I met Dr. Scott Large, the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, at a meeting we were having down in Florida. We were just chatting afterwards and he said, "Kevin, I'm really concerned about this satellite we have that's going to reenter early next year." I said, "This isn't the first time we've had satellites reenter in an uncontrolled fashion. What's unique about this?" He said, "Well there is something different about this one. It's got a thousand pounds of hydrazine on board that has not been used and we're pretty sure, because it's in a titanium tank, that this tank will survive reentry. So we're not talking about the risk which is a pretty low probability of anyone being injured by debris; we're talking about the risk of this tank surviving to the ground and bursting open and exposing people to the hydrazine inside it which can be fatal." It's a pretty toxic, those of you in the business know, chemical.

I said, "Well, I'm sure glad I didn't launch that thing." [Laughter]. He said, "Do you have any ideas?" I said, "I don't know what you'd do other than we start preparing for the contingency when that happens, to be in a position to support wherever it lands." He said, "I'm going to give [Lt. Gen. Trey Obering a call and see if there's anything they can do." Trey runs the Missile Defense Agency.

About a week before Christmas Trey called me, this is about two weeks later. He related the conversation he had with Scott. He said, "Scott's asked me to look at this." He said, "We're going to start, and I'll call you between Christmas and New Year's, and let you know what we found out."

So I get a call about the 28th of December and it's from Trey. He says, "You know, we've taken a look at this. We're not sure we can do it, but right now our engineers are saying they don't see any show stoppers. It's going to be tight. This thing is going to reenter the first week in March. I don't know if we can pull it off, but we're ready to go to work full time on this if it's what the country wants to do."

That led to a meeting the first week in January with the President of the United States, laying out what we estimated was the risk, the likelihood of the satellite surviving, the likelihood of the tank surviving which was all high for the tank, and the risk for the populous on the planet should that tank land in a very densely populated area like Paris, or out in the country in some remote parts of Texas, or anywhere else.

Although the probabilities were, of course, low for debris, the probabilities of affecting someone from the hydrazine gas were at a level that the President felt it would be very hard for him, in a worst case scenario, to ever look a parent in the eye whose child had been injured by this hydrazine and have to tell them, "You know, the United States of America put this satellite up there and we might have had an opportunity to do something about it but we didn't even try." It was on that basis that the President made the decision to try.

We didn't know if we'd be successful in this regard. The secret was not our technology, although that was pretty marvelous in and of itself, but we brought together 16 different parts of our government -- from the State Department to the emergency response teams at FEMA, to all the services, to the Missile Defense Agency, you name it "" anybody that could or had an ability "" NASA was a tremendous help in this "" all came together. It was the people in these organizations that literally didn't sleep for the ensuing month, worked 24 hours a day, just straight through, wore themselves out to pull this all together and make it happen. Sure enough, by mid February we were ready and able to execute and successfully engage the satellite.

To give you an idea of what we were really doing here, the satellite was probably from that wall to this wall long; and probably about eight feet in diameter. So you can imagine that size. But that's not what we were trying to hit. What we were trying to hit was a 40-inch diameter tank that was embedded in the middle of that satellite. That was mission success. We were able to do that, which is absolutely phenomenal in my mind.

At the same time we had to prepare for, ""what if you miss?"" ""What if you hit and don't hit the tank?"" ""What if you hit the tank?""

If you hit the tank, that was all good news for the most part. If you miss the tank and it reentered, you had to be prepared just as if you had missed altogether or never tried. So again, it was very important. We postured an alert force on 24 hour response to be able to deploy anywhere in the world, to support anyone who would ask for our help should that land.

What we realized, though, is that we couldn't get there fast enough to do immediate response, so transparency became paramount. Information push became paramount for us as well. Letting the world know what the real hazards were and how to deal with those hazards should this tank survive reentry and land.

So our goal was to eliminate the risk. We had to balance that, though, versus the creation of orbital debris which is a real concern. I was kind of glad that STRATCOM was involved with this program and I was involved with this program because I am not a big fan of orbital debris, having been hit by it on all three of my space shuttle flights. So we had to balance the risk to people on the ground with the risk of creating additional orbital debris which drove us to attempt to engage the satellite as low as possible in an altitude sense. Then we had to be prepared to assist in case we failed, and as I said, be transparent.

The results have been much publicized and talked about. Of course we hit the tank. The hydrazine was vaporized instantly. The satellite broke up. The good news is that because we were concerned about debris and had been paying attention to it, 99 percent of the debris created by this intercept has already reentered the atmosphere and is no longer a risk to navigational orbit.

We're tracking today 18 pieces that we can still see, sizes about this big [holding his hands apart]. We expect all but about four [pieces] to reenter this month, and the remainder this summer. We expect the pieces that we can't see -- but our models tell us are probably there -- to all be down by the end of the year.

So we would rate this as a pretty highly successful operation in mitigating the risk to people on planet earth and minimizing the risk to navigation for satellites on orbit. It was only possible by that wonderful resource that I talked about earlier, and that was our people. It truly is a privilege to work with people with such dedication. And it's a privilege for me "" I'm grateful to even be in this business, to have had the opportunity to work in civil space and now military space.

Along with that privilege I feel comes a responsibility to protect and preserve this domain that we've become so reliant upon today for future generations. With that privilege and with that responsibility I think it's important for us to always look for opportunities – opportunities for international cooperation to increase the safety and security of our operations in space by improving space situational awareness; to decrease the cost for access for the benefit of the future; and to foster and develop interests and expertise in our youth so they can follow us and carry on.

Thank you very much for your attention. I'm happy to take any of your questions.