Patti Grace Smith, a federal official who was credited with helping build the regulatory runway for the nascent commercial space transportation industry, opening space travel to private innovators, died June 5 at a hospital in Washington. She was 68.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said her brother, Douglas Jones Jr.
From 1997 to 2008, Mrs. Smith was associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration overseeing the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, with authority over the licensing, regulation and support of the commercial spaceflight industry.
She came to the FAA with little experience in aviation beyond the knowledge of satellites that she had acquired earlier in her government career as an official at the Federal Communications Commission. Her colleagues credited her with mastering the complexity of space travel — its perils as well as its promise — and with championing innovation while also safeguarding public safety.
For decades, spaceflight was restricted to NASA, the military, the government and large aerospace contractors, Eric Stallmer, the president of the Washington-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said.
Mrs. Smith, he said, “ushered in new innovative companies” that did not resemble the ones that had previously propelled rockets into space. Among the new entrants were SpaceX, started by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk; Virgin Galactic, started by investor Richard Branson; and Blue Origin, started by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and owner of The Washington Post.
“She was a real visionary about the commercial flight transportation industry and where it was going, and she was a very effective voice for the industry within government,” said Bretton Alexander, a former FAA colleague of Mrs. Smith’s who is now director of business development and strategy at Blue Origin.
In a statement, Musk said that Mrs. Smith “helped lay the foundations for a new era in American spaceflight,” observing that “we are closer to becoming a multi-planet species because of her efforts.”
The most dramatic moment of Mrs. Smith’s FAA tenure came in 2004, with the successful launch of SpaceShipOne, the first private craft to achieve manned spaceflight. Before that trip, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation had licensed only unmanned rockets toting satellites or other materials to space.
Mrs. Smith observed the launch from a runway in Mojave, Calif. It was an “unparalleled thrill,” she later recalled in an interview with The Post.
It was also a regulatory entanglement, posing quandaries over what to call the craft — a launch vehicle or newfangled airplane — as well as who would oversee its flight trajectory.
Mrs. Smith, her staff of approximately 60 and other colleagues were credited with helping pave the way for SpaceShipOne’s takeoff. Their contributions, The Post reported, included obtaining official recognition of the pilot as “part of the flight safety system for the vehicle,” a label that checked a bureaucratic box for the flight to move forward.
Patricia Camille Jones was born in Tuskegee, Ala., on Nov. 10, 1947. In high school, she was among the African American students who integrated Tuskegee and other Alabama schools, defeating Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s pledge for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
She received a bachelor’s degree in English from what is now Tuskegee University, the historically black institution in Alabama.
She began her career in broadcasting before joining the FCC, where her roles included chief of consumer assistance and small business. She joined the Office of Commercial Space Transportation in 1994 and became deputy associate administrator the following year.
After her government service, she founded Patti Grace Smith Consulting, an aerospace consulting firm.
Her marriage to Gene Grace ended in divorce. Besides her brother, survivors include her husband, John Clay Smith Jr. of Washington; a son from her first marriage, Eugene Grace of Houston; three children from her second marriage, Stager Smith of Atlanta, Michael Smith of Temple Hills, Md., and Michelle Davis of Houston; a sister; a half-brother; and grandchildren.
Mrs. Smith championed space travel not only for its economic, military, disaster-preparedness, transportation and technological applications but also for its ability to awe and excite the imagination.
“Is it inspirational?” she asked a congressional subcommittee in 2009. “Absolutely. It’s essential. All you had to do was be in the desert in Mojave in 2004 and see the thousands of people who assembled there, young and old, from all over the country, all over the world, to see their eyes light up with the first flight of a private human spaceflight vehicle to know how exciting it is.”
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