In addition to the working groups, there were several speakers throughout the conference. While there most ideas presented at space conferences aren’t particularly new, there were a few ideas from the various speakers (and from conversations I had at the conference) that I thought were worth mentioning. This may be a bit random, but I’m going to just list several of the ideas I found most interesting and new.
Buzz Aldrin was one of the breakfast speakers during the conference. Though I was sleep-deprived enough that I couldn’t concentrate during most of his talk, he made an interesting (if not heretical) point about “astronauts”. The “naut” part of astronaut, taikonaut, or cosmonaut, refers to “nautical”–coming from the concept of an astronaut as someone who knew how to navigate in space. Basically a pilot, an astrogator, someone who knows orbital dynamics, and knows how to fly spacecraft. His point was that not everyone who flies on a vehicle in space is an astronaut. I think he was saying this to try and distinguish space tourists from actual NASA astronauts, but I think his point is more interesting than that. For most space flights, you really don’t need more than one or two astronauts. Most of the people who fly into space don’t need to know how to navigate by the stars, or how to plot a trajectory, or how to null out the rotations on a vehicle. You might want a backup pilot, but not everyone who flies into space needs to or should be a fly-boy. Now, there’s a bit of an emotional appeal to the idea of being able to call oneself an astronaut because one flew over 100km, enough so that it’s probably still worth leaving that tradition in place for now–my point was just that those paying space travellers don’t need to be trained or treated in the same way as a career spacecraft pilot.
Taber MacCallum of Paragon Space Development Corp gave probably the most interesting talk at the conference. Some of the earlier talks had copies of the slides posted on the NGEC-2 site, so I thought they were going to do the same for Taber’s talk. Alas, as of the last time I checked, this didn’t turn out to be the case. If anyone can snag me a copy of his presentation, that would be greatly appreciated. Taber and his wife were members of the original Biosphere 2 team, and he spent at least part of his time talking about lessons learned from that project. The biggest and most important part of his presentation was about the role of “leadership” in entrepreneurial ventures. He made the point that I’ve made in several instances that entrepreneurial ventures are high-stress, high-ambiguity environments. As I understood it, his point was that leadership in many cases boils down to emotional maturity. How we deal with our egos, with stress, with uncertainty, and with critical decisions. He made the interesting point that when a person gets identified too closely with a certain technical project or solution, it’s often easy to allow the success or failure of that project to become intimately tied to one’s self-worth. In such situations it becomes very hard to act objectively, and very easy to act in an emotionally immature fashion. I’ve seen this before (a lot) in myself, and I think that most readers could probably find examples in their own lives of such shortcomings. I know that when I’ve been championing an idea, and shoots holes in it, that sometimes I end up becoming very defensive, and will actively start blocking out evidence that contradicts my position. I usually calm down later, apologize, and get back to work. But it’s a valid point–and an extremely dangerous one for entrepreneurs (or other people in leadership positions). As one person put later on in the conference, the single most likely thing that could hinder the development of commercial space is the personalities of the key players involved. Ironically, I think he might be right. While the technical, financial, and market obstacles are real and severe, the emotional, ego, and personality challenges may actually be more important in the long run. Just a thought.
Another interesting idea came up in the discussion in our lunar access working group about space ferries. One of the members of our team was an engineer at a major commercial satellite manufacturer. On several occasions, when discussing various alternative commercial means for delivering satellites to orbit or to GEO, I’ve had friends like Dennis Wingo bring up the risk aversion of the satellite manufacturers/launchers as an insurmountable show-stopper. As the logic went, launch costs are such a small percentage of the overall costs (and minuscule compared to the future revenue streams) that doing things that would reduce launch costs wouldn’t really be very interesting to satellite builders/launchers, because the risk of doing something new would be too high. I had been repeating this conventional wisdom, when my teammate suggested a slightly different viewpoint. He agreed that satellite builders and launchers were very risk averse, by necessity. They really don’t want to buy the first flight of some new transportation concept. Higher risks correspond with higher liability premiums. However, he made the point that after the initial risk has been reduced through a demo (or preferably two or three), that launch costs actually end up being very important. He said that while launch costs weren’t the majority of the cost of building, launching, and activating a satellite, they were significant, and investors and customers really hammer on them to try and find the best deals they can. The fact that people are willing to launch on rockets with known worse reliability track records (Ariane V and Sea Launch for instance) in order to get a better launch cost should put to lie the idea that satellite builders and launchers are so risk averse that they’ll never get involved in a new technology until after its been in service for a long time. One shouldn’t assume that they’ll be able to just sign customers up right from the start, but at least from what he was suggesting, the barrier to entry into supplying services to that market might be a little lower than I had originally suspected. Another idea that came up in the conversation was that the sooner you could convince insurers that your service provides a net decrease in risk, the more likely they’d be leaned on by customers and investors to take advantage of that service (in order to lower their premiums). Once again, just some more food for thought.
Another interesting point, brought up by Ken Davidian regarded the aging of the NASA workforce. At the time of Apollo 11, the average age of a NASA employee was about 29 years old. Now it’s over 55. This has very important ramifications for the future of NASA and commercial space development, particularly with Griffin’s statements on several occasions that NASA was going to be relying on more experienced engineers for Constellation, instead of hiring on a bunch of younger engineers for the project.
Unfortunately, I’ve been asked not to blog about one of the most interesting new ideas that I heard at the conference. Maybe at some point once my friend has had more chance to spread his meme from inside the agency I can blog about it without risking getting the idea tossed out as being “Not Invented Here”.
Lastly, in addition to the working groups and the planned speakers, this conference ended up being a great chance for networking. I finally got to meet Grant Bonin in person (he’s been trying to rope me into writing a commercial Mars transportation white paper for a while now). I got to meet a few people from the NASASpaceFlight forums. On Wednesday night, Tiff and I (and some friends from Santa Clara) got to go swing dancing in San Francisco, and we were able to arrange a meeting with Jake McGuire (who I’ve known from the sci.space.* newsgroups for over 11 years now). And on Friday night we had dinner with both Henry Cate’s. For the conference, we were staying at the house of the one who hosts the Bay Area Moon Society meetings, and on Friday we had dinner with him and his wife and several of his kids and their families. His son Henry is the one who started the Carnival of Space last year.
I hope they have another conference like this next year. The work was fun, but I enjoyed getting to finally meet some of these people even more.