Michael Lopez-Alegria brings a three-decade background of service from NASA and the U.S. Navy to his role as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington-based trade association.
The retired Navy captain and former astronaut has commanded one mission to the International Space Station and holds three records for U.S. spaceflight: longest spaceflight (215 days); most number of extravehicular activities (10) and cumulative EVA time (67 hours 40 minutes).
In this conversation with ExecutiveGov, Lopez-Alegria overviews how he draws on his experience from the ISS program to represent the space sector in Washington, assesses where the U.S. is now in commercial spaceflight and offers ways for the country to continue progress in human spaceflight.
ExecutiveGov: What is your background in the space arena and what are some milestones and responsibilities that stand out to you from across your career?
Michael Lopez-Alegria: I went to the Naval Academy and after graduation, I went through Navy pilot training and became a Naval aviator and then an engineering test pilot, after which I was selected by NASA to become an astronaut.
I started training in 1992. I served on three space shuttle missions – Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour – and on one long-duration mission to the International Space Station.
Around two years ago, I left NASA and became the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an association of leading businesses and organizations working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality.
ExecutiveGov: How does the federation work to bring together stakeholders in commercial spaceflight and to accomplish its goals?
Michael Lopez-Alegria: We have about 50 members and they range from spacecraft and/or launch vehicle developers to suppliers, engineering service companies, and a few miscellaneous related businesses.
You can divide the spacecraft developers into two parts: Orbital spacecraft developers and suborbital. Both go to space, but have very different characteristics.
CSF’s role is to advocate for public policy that favors the advancement of the commercial spaceflight industry, which includes trying to influence legislation, such as NASA and Commercial Space Launch Act authorizations and appropriations.
We also work closely with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation on regulatory issues, have lead a standards development effort, and focus on public outreach to try to extol the virtues of commercial space.
Michael Lopez-Alegria: When I took this job, I had no background in public policy or how Washington works, and it’s been quite a learning experience. Luckily, I have an outstanding staff with considerable expertise in this world.
What I brought to the equation was some street cred and legitimacy in the field of space flight, and that helps when you are trying to meet with busy influencer audiences.
The door can sometimes open more easily when your business card says astronaut on it. I’ve been trying to leverage the entree with actually understanding the fundamental issues that the industry is concerned about, and putting those things together to try to influence public policy in the right direction.
It’s really been a challenge and a change, which is what I was looking for. I got hefty doses of both of those. Learning how things work in Washington is something that we almost shunned from our little cocoon back at the Johnson Space Center as astronauts, but it’s an important part of how the world really works.
It’s not just physics. As I heard somebody say, political engineering is still engineering, and that’s kind of a tough lesson for a test pilot, but it’s reality. So, it’s been challenging, but very rewarding.
Michael Lopez-Alegria: I came here because I really believe that commercial and human spaceflight is a key step in the continuation of human exploration of space, and the way that we are helping is by democratizing access to space.
Currently, the number of humans that have ever been to space is 536. That’s over five decades, so that’s not very many.
We’d like to compare it to the beginning of the commercial aviation era in the late 20s and 30s in the last century when it was similarly really hard to get a commercial aviation flight as a passenger.
Now look how routine it is for people to get on an airplane. I don’t know whether we’ll have the kind of meteoric success that airline industry has had in the same time span, because the physics are definitely harder, but something that resembles that is certainly possible.
The second thing that we are focused on is expanding the economic sphere of this country and the world economy off the planet. As we start pushing boundaries, it’s been very common over our history for our government to lead expeditions or to fund them and be the ones that drive exploration in opening new frontiers.
Then once the frontier is open, then commerce comes in, for example, selling furs or opening hotels for people mining for gold. That’s what we’re about to see in the low Earth orbit and in suborbital space.
In the not too distant future, we could see a little micro economy there, which is obviously a correct expansion of economic influence.