With heartfelt sadness, I’d like to pay tribute to the life and legacy of Patricia “Patti” Grace Smith, a former Associate Administrator in our Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). Unexpectedly, Patti passed away on Sunday, June 5, 2016.
As a senior leader at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Patti embodied every hallmark of our agency: advocacy, commitment to safety, innovation, inspiration, and vision. She joined AST in 1994 and held the position of Deputy Associate Administrator from 1995 to 1997. For 11 years (1997-2008), she served as AST’s Associate Administrator with specific authority over licensing, regulation and industry support. Even though Patti was new to the world of aviation when she joined FAA, during her tenure, she became a subject matter expert in space travel and its significance to the aviation industry. Her technical expertise grew to match her diligence and enthusiasm for AST’s work.
In remembering her, I want to recognize that Patti led AST staff members through a transitional time. She assumed leadership in AST shortly after FAA subsumed the office that previously was an independent organization within the Department of Transportation. In these early days, she and her team established a solid reputation for the office based on their passionate advocacy for the future of U.S. commercial space transportation and their strong relationships with stakeholders. From 1994 to 2005, Patti led the development of new regulations that transformed our industry, including regulations that cover the reentry of reusable launch vehicles as well as regulations that cover commercial human spaceflight.
Patricia Grace Smith discusses commercial space at the 2014 Future in Review Conference. Smith played a major role in shaping the commercial space transportation industry during her time at the FAA. Credit: Future in Review
Patti’s leadership also was instrumental in a compromise definition of a suborbital rocket that was later codified into the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. Her work on this compromise definition kept suborbital rockets under AST’s authority where such vehicles were not subject to severe regulations that could stifle industry growth. I’m proud to note that Patti is an inextricable part of our office’s past, present, and future. Her efforts laid the early foundation for AST’s role in commercial spaceflight, established AST’s legitimacy in our current industry, and created a blueprint for our ongoing work in the field. In total, she served 28 years in government.
Before Patti conquered the challenges of commercial space flight, she bravely took on the challenges of racial segregation. Born Patricia Camille Jones in Tuskegee, Alabama, in November 1947, she was one of several African American students to integrate Tuskegee and Alabama high schools. Then, she attended what is now Tuskegee University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English. Even as a teen, Patti was a trailblazer. Long before she ushered innovative companies into commercial space, she paved a path for African American students to have equal access to education.
Patti Grace Smith in 2014. (Dan Lamont /Strategic News Service)
I want to highlight that even after Patti’s retirement from the agency, her dedication to our industry was clear. She worked as a consultant at Virgin Galactic and other companies in addition to establishing Patti Grace Smith Consulting, her own aerospace consulting firm. Also, for several years, she was the chair of the commercial space committee of NASA Advisory Council, and at the time of her death, she was the vice-chair of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Academies.
When I and other AST staff remember Patti Grace Smith, we will recall the attribute reflected in her name: grace. We always will remember her grace to form new and lasting relationships with stakeholders, to lead a diverse workforce toward a common goal and to make enduring contributions to our agency and industry.