SpaceShipOne, Source: Huffington Post
I just returned from the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS). Copies of the presentations will soon be accessible via the New Mexico NASA Space Grant Consortium , the event organizer. However, with the help of a bevy of onsite bloggers, the speakers' comments, reactions to those comments, and comments on those reactions began reverberating throughout the online community even before they had concluded their remarks (HobbySpace.com, CosmicLog.msnbc.msn.com). Therefore, I certainly won't try to summarize the two days of plenary sessions. However, there were some important over-arching developments that can be distilled from the fine panel presentations, and here are my impressions.
-The global sense of expectation that there is a real, emerging commercial space industry is stronger and more widespread than a year ago. Government representatives, large and small industry, universities, workforce development organizations, and spaceport operators uniformly believe that some invisible corner has been turned.
-There is heightened concern over STEM education and where future aerospace workers will come from. Often this was not a formal part of the panelist's presentations, but was verbalized in the questions and comments section after a number of the talks. A similar concern was voiced about transfer of knowledge from the aging, experienced generation to the next generation. There were no concrete suggestions about what to do, but then this was not a workshop about how to solve that problem. There should be one, but that is another story.
-The Augustine report was mentioned often, both in formal presentations and followup comments. Most people saw it as an important signal and driver to accelerate development of commercial space endeavors, and it helps build the idea that there is a commercial space marketplace not just for wealthy joy-riders but for meeting practical needs. On a related front, the question of what constitutes "commercial space" was posed but not answered. The phrase does seem to be code for a shift away from government-centric operations toward a more diversified marketplace of space-related goods and services.
-NASA is grappling with how to fit in this new alignment, but is coming to accept the fact that they are assuming the role of science-based buyers of space access services in many cases, rather than just spaceflight pioneers. Within that, the NASA Administrator is regarded as having the "right stuff" and an open mind, but will take his cues from the White House.
-Representatives from spaceports in Sweden, Florida, Indiana, French New Guinea, and New Mexico were present. Importantly, there was strong vocal agreement that they do not see themselves as competitors with one another for launch business. There was recognition that each spaceport has its own strengths and weaknesses for certain users trying to do particular missions with given types of equipment, and that the term "competition" is pretty much meaningless at this point. They are very desirous of working together to develop point-to-point transportation, and working with the FAA and other authorities on common operational issues to make commercial space flight more routine. This is a good thing.
-There is a need to de-fragment the process of developing standard interactions between various spaceports and the flight systems of anticipated users. No one wants to see a situation where users launching from one spaceport would have to land at a destination with incompatible systems. And no one wants the government in the position of listening to multiple petitioners make their cases about why their specific way of doing launches and returns is safer or more efficient than someone else's. Industry needs to come to the table and jointly lay out a plan and develop standards.
The fact that venture capitalists would show up and talk about their investments and plans for the commercial space industry says something, too. The commercial space industry is real enough to create significant movement by a lot of highly knowledgeable players. Our pathway to the stars is opening up. This is an exciting time to be alive, and to look forward to many "firsts" and rich, new experiences.