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ISPCS: Constrained Budgets Have Upside -- Innovation

Gabriele Betancourt-Martinez
Posted: 22-Oct-2013
Updated: 22-Oct-2013 01:10 PM

Established and entrepreneurial space companies met last week at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight  (ISPCS), where innovation was touted as one solution to budgetary constraints both in industry and the government.

NASA was not represented at the symposium because of the government shutdown, but Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, expressed the constraints on NASA’s budget by comparing it to how much the nation spends yearly on beer -- $18 billion for NASA versus about $100 billion on beer.  Industry faces similar funding challenges, but Jon Gertner, Editor-at-Large of the magazine Fast Company, and others said that has one good side-effect: innovation.

In his keynote address, Gertner used a narrative about the development of the transistor at Bell Labs as a metaphor for how innovations are often under-rated at the beginning:  “Even when we think we understand the value of a breakthrough, we probably don’t.”  During a session entitled “Environments that Foster Innovation,” panelists Cassie Kloberdanz of Sierra Nevada, Makenzie Lystrup of Ball Aerospace, and Chris Boshuizen of Planet Labs discussed various elements of their current and past work environments that led to better innovation.  (Planet Labs is a small start-up that is planning to launch a constellation of 28 earth imaging cubesats and provide free, real-time data about the planet.) They include promoting inclusivity, allowing workers to find their passion and grow into their positions, and modeling the business practices and faster turnaround time after other industries that are experiencing success.

Unexpected breakthroughs like the ones Gertner mentioned are a subset of the “unknown unknowns” that were discussed at ISPCS.  Failures encountered along the way are another.  Safety and reliability are paramount in the commercial and personal spaceflight business, participants emphasized.  There seemed to be consensus that human fatalities would be difficult for the industry if they happened relatively early on.  Alan Ladwig, who recently retired from NASA and founded To Orbit Productions, spoke of the inherent risks of spaceflight in his keynote address, and recommended that the space tourism industry develop a comprehensive contingency plan in case of an accident.  He also wondered aloud why deaths related to spaceflight are perceived so differently from deaths due to automobile accidents or military activities.  Perhaps, he suggested, equating space tourism with more commonplace activities would reduce that disparity.

One area of debate at the symposium was whether space is inherently interesting to the average person.  Some believe it is.  Pat Hynes of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium mentioned an upcoming reality show where contestants will compete for a ticket to space.  Sean Mahoney from Masten Space Systems said that people are excited about space worldwide: “[space] is our new exploration story.”

Others, however, lamented that the public no longer feels the excitement of the space race era.  Duane Ratliff of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and Shotwell remarked that in the 1960s and 1970s, things were different; the public was much more engaged with the space program.  Ratliff noted that in that era, children owned lunchboxes with astronauts on the side. These days, he said, it is harder to generate excitement among the public about the International Space Station, for example, because they cannot see or touch it and therefore it must be made more accessible.   CASIS is a non-profit whose purpose is to find non-NASA users for the ISS.

Although “international” is part of the symposium’s title, there was no obvious international showing in attendees or presenters.  Even in the dialogue, the American focus was evident: Ratliff talked about how decisions on what experiments will fly on the ISS should benefit U.S. citizens; Paul Guthrie of the Tauri Group discussed how innovation contributes to the U.S. economy; and Bob Allen of Innovation, Design, Entertainment, Art and Storytelling (IDEAS) exclaimed at one point that “We [Americans] own space. Like it or not, we do.”  About the only mention of international space activities was by Boeing’s John Elbon, who praised the international partnership that built and operates the International Space Station.

ISPCS 2013 is a familial symposium, and break times certainly hummed with both greetings from friends and acquaintances and networking powwows.   Although many attendees were from large, well-known corporations, there was also a strong showing of emerging small startups, eager to find their niche and make their mark on the field.

It is difficult to say whether the tone would have been different if NASA representatives had been present, but perhaps it is symbolic that even with government shut down, the symposium went on and was a success.The symposium agenda can be found on the ISPCS website and videos of the sessions should be uploaded there soon.


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