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Helping New Space Industry Lift Off

"If this industry is over-regulated, it could be killed in its infancy, and Patti is well aware of that. . . . Don't regulate a moped the way you regulate a Mack truck," Diamandis said, noting that the more than two dozen rocket designs offered by barnstorming, international X Prize competitors have significantly less power and range than most conventional commercial rockets.

Smith said her office takes pride in "being efficient regulators" and working with industry "to create a result we both can live with." But she also acknowledged the tension between her role as an industry booster and a government regulator.

Patricia Grace Smith presents the first commercial astronaut wings to Michael W. Melvill. (Gene Blevins -- AP)

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In Profile

Patricia Grace Smith

Title: Associate administrator for commercial space transportation, Federal Aviation Administration.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Tuskegee University; graduate work, Auburn University, George Washington University and Harvard University Business School.

Age: 55.

Family: Married to Howard University law professor J. Clay Smith Jr.; four children.

Career highlights: Deputy associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at FAA from 1995 to 1997 (she joined the office in 1994 when it was part of the Department of Transportation's headquarters staff); various posts at the Federal Communications Commission; worked for Sheridan Broadcasting Corp. and the Group W broadcasting group.

Pastimes: Antiquing, gardening, mentoring.

Last books read: "Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age" by Greg Klerkx and "The Secret Life of Bees," a novel by Sue Monk.

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"Part of our responsibility is to enforce . . . regulations in the interest of the public safety," Smith said. "We believe that we regulate in a way that is not unduly burdensome to the industry."

Smith is not a newcomer to the space business. She has worked in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation since 1994. The office was formed during the Reagan administration to oversee commercial satellite launchers. Since then, it has licensed more than 165 launches, including three SpaceShipOne test flights.

Smith's staff of about 60 has expertise ranging from economics to engineering. One of the office's aerospace engineers, Paul D. Wilde, an expert on reentry issues, also served on the staff of the independent panel that investigated the space shuttle Columbia accident.

Smith came to the business of regulating rockets after working for 14 years at the Federal Communications Commission, where her interest in space was sparked in part by work that involved issues related to communications satellites.

"I was always curious about how they got up there," Smith said.

Now Smith oversees the industry that puts them there -- almost always atop conventional unmanned rockets.

Legislation passed by the House in March would give the FAA more specific guidance on regulating a space tourism business, including questions of liability and requirements for passengers. Smith said lawmakers need to address those issues before the FAA can allow spacecraft crews to routinely ferry people and payloads to space and back -- a concept that Smith said fits her own vision for the future of commercial space transportation.

"I truly, truly see space as transportation . . . not unlike aviation, not unlike rail, not unlike transit -- an intermodal, interconnected system that creates benefits for the nation," Smith said.

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