Howdy everyone! I took a couple of vacation days this week, so that of course means Space Conference!
This time around it was the Space Economy Leadership Summit just down the road in Austin at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel on Congress Avenue. Put together by Phillips & Co., it aimed to look at “job creation and entrepreneurship for the next economic frontier.”
Things got started with a brief intro from the Texas Secretary of State, Esperanza Andrade, who extolled the virtues of doing business in the great state of Texas. One point she didn’t make (but I like to) is that Texas used to be considered worthless scrub land by pretty much everyone. It’s a harsh, stark, austere state with much danger awaiting the unwary,and those who do thrive here tend to be of a stouter stock than in most places. The harshness of the land also makes for a very pragmatic mindset. It is very difficult to wrest prosperity from the lands of Texas, and once wrested folks tend to be very possessive of it. That’s part of why we only let our legislature meet every other year. There’s work to be done and we don’t need political tomfoolery distracting folks from the tasks at hand.
Texas is, in my view, a perfect of analogy for the development of the near space frontier. If we can make Texas of all places a pleasant place to live (heaven on Earth for some of us), then we can make pretty much anywhere a pleasant place to live and that definitely includes the Moon.
One point she did make was that Texas has 30+ universities and 20 high schools that offer aeronautical courses.
Next up was Wayne Hale from NASA, a well-regarded commenter on the state of the organization. The essence of his talk was the question “Do we want to be China or do we want to be Portugal?” In this case we’re talking the 15th Century, when China was in the process of shutting down its huge Imperial fleet at the same time that Portugal was ramping up its exploration and trading efforts. One point that Wayne made regarded the mindset of the decision-makers in China, who were seeing the results of all the tradestuffs streaming back to Beijing and decided that hey, China had the best of everything already, the highest culture, the most advanced sciences, the biggest armies, the best food; for what did they need the rest of the world?
Except that it was Portugal and its European competitors, and their offshoots, which led the world into the 21st century, and now China is doing a very effective job of catch-up. So which do we want to be? The monolithic empire that seems to think it is the best at everything? Or one of the competitors for the abundant resources and energy of space that will be leading the world into the 25th century?
The first panel looked at the impact of the space economy. One number that was bandied about quite a bit was the $261.7Bn that the space sector contributes to the world economy. That’s not chump change, and it’s set to get bigger. Patti Grace Smith, formerly with the FAA and now an advisor to Bigelow Aerospace, was joined by Ken Bowersox of SpaceX, Dr. George Sowers of ULA, and Carl Walz of Orbital Sciences.
I did get to ask a question during this panel, so I asked the group if any effort was being made to design to a common payload interface, such that if I, as an entrepreneur, developed some kind of Murphy Coupe with rich Corinthian leather seats and an Apple-designed ergonomic interface, would I be able to stick it on any of the launchers proposed with basically no adaptation. Kind of like how I can stick a USB flash drive into a Dell, or HP, or Apple, or Fujitsu, or whatever. The answer from Dr. Sowers was noteworthy, in that he indicated that the military had the same concern with swapping payloads between launchers (the whole point of having multiple launch vehicles in the stable), and so had a Standard Interface Spec that both rockets were designed to.
This is encouraging, as it means there is going to be more opportunity for space vehicles to be separated launch vehicles in the context of who manufactures them. SpaceX shouldn’t care what launch vehicle their Dragons launch on, so long as people are buying Dragons. In fact, during a stand-down of the Falcon-9 (and SpaceX will have them, just like everyone else), the ability to continue to generate cash flows from the continuing sale of Dragon capsules could be a key strategic consideration. This also means that someone like Murphydyne Industries could design and build space vehicles without also having to design and build launch vehicles. That’s how entrepreneurial opportunities arise.
The next panel was on Green Space – Economic Growth at the Intersection of the Environment, Energy and Space. It was led by the host of the proceedings, Richard Phillips,and featured Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher of CSC, Nancy Colleton of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, and Dan Thoma of Iridium. Adm. Lautenbacher was an engaging speaker, and spoke a bit about the biggest little company you’ve never heard of, CSC. Ms. Colleton noted the key role that Earth observation satellites play in the global economy, as well as the disconnect that people have regarding even the existence of such things. She was the first of many during the conference to note the quote offered up by some rube: “What do we need NOAA for? We’ve got the Weather Channel!”
I got to ask my second and last question of the day to Mr. Thoma, who had noted during his remarks that Iridium was in the process of working up the financing for their next round of satellites in a couple of years. I asked in general what kind of approach were they taking for the financing? Syndicated loan, debt instruments, or what? He said what. In this case Export Trade Credits, which can be financed. Sort of like accounts receivable financing, but not exactly. I can’t think of a better example at the moment since I haven’t looked at that sort of thing in a long while. He also noted that less that 10% of the Earth is served by terrestrial wireless, so definitely an ongoing market for satcomms.
During the lunch break we were treated to a canned pitch for the status quo from Congressman Pete Olsen, which was rather ambivalently received by the attendees, and a much livelier talk from Esther Dyson, who talked about her adventures in the space field.
The first set of presentations after lunch was on Universal Communications and the Promise of Global Connectivity. Greg Pelton of Cisco IRIS talked about the various ways that Cisco is looking at things like how to do IP (internet protocol IP, not intellectual property IP) in space. He noted that the latency of using GEO sats in the comm pipe is actually competitive with terrestrial wireless, and that expectations of consumers dropped once everyone started using cell phones. Also more advance stuff like machine to machine (M2M) and ‘cognition’ (in the sense of awareness of location in space (via GPS signals) and the ability of the sat to communicate.
James Hollopeter, of GIT Satellite Communications, talked about where the rubber meets the road, and how his company works as a middleman to work with consumers (individuals or, mostly, businesses) and satcomm suppliers to craft the best solution for both. Which is one of the best ways to build long-term business relationships.
Last up, Tiffany Montague from Google Space Initiatives gave an overview of Google’s activities spacewise. It was a well-received talk, and the guys were lining up afterwards to talk with her. Yours truly included, as I wanted to cover a couple of points:
1) I wanted to thank her because Google has been bery, bery good to Out of the Cradle (and she got the cultural reference). OotC is considered a “Low Priority” website by Google Webmaster, but it shows up on the front page of a lot of space-related search queries. She averred that that spoke to the quality of the content, because you can’t game their engine. Dang she’s good.
2) I wanted to develop a bit of a rapport, so I mentioned a couple of younger folks I know that she has worked with, including Amanda Stiles (one of my competitors for Lunar expert), as well as Robbie Schingler and Jessy Cowan out at NASA Ames, so we chatted a bit about efforts like CoLab.
3) The main point of my visit was to ask her if she could get on the different Google Lunar X-Prize teams to respond to the EVA Interview requests. Eva’s had two teams so far respond to the questions she sent out through the X-Prize Foundation (and one with Will Pomerantz), so I figured maybe if Google dropped them a note encouraging them to respond we would get even more interviews up for everyone to learn more about the competition. So I’ve got to send her a reminder, one of many e-mails I’ve got to put together this weekend.
This little endeavor kept me occupied during the first half of the next panel (since I did have to wait in line), and so I only saw the last bit of Hal Hagemeier’s presentation from the National Space Security Office, and then James Baker’s talk from MEI Technologies.
The last panel of the day was on Job Growth, Entrepreneurship and U.S. Competitiveness, led by Doug Comstock of NASA IPP. Micah Walter-Range from the Space Foundation gave an overview of their recent market survey report, which shed a bit more light on the mysterious $261.7Bn figure noted above. I haven’t seen the report yet, so I don’t know the methodology used to arrive at the figures (a key bit of information if one is to do analysis), but they break down roughly as follows:
Commercial Infrastructure: $83.6Bn
Infrastructure Support: $1.2Bn
Commercial Satellite Services: $90.6Bn (yowza!)
International Governmental: $21.8Bn
Government (pres. U.S.): $64.4Bn
Commercial Space Transportation: $0.1Bn (actually, $80.0Mn, which rounds to $0.1Bn)
As I said, I don’t know how they got these figures, so I won’t comment on them (other than the remarks above). Micah’s supposed to send me a copy for the Lunar Library, so yet another e-mail to compose this weekend.
Peggy Slye of Futron provided further details, as did Mary-Lynne Dittmar, whose Dittmar Associates has done extensive market research in different space-related areas. Jeff Krukin was, of course, Jeff Krukin, and if you haven’t seen him speak then make sure to sign up for the next Space Frontier Foundation conference.
Closing remarks were provided by Richard Garriott, who covered the perils and pitfalls of being a citizen astronaut. I approached him about possibly being a speaker at the Moon Day event I’m putting together for July 18th at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field in Dallas. He’s got to check his scheduled but he indicated he’s interested. If I can get both Richard and Anousheh Ansari to speak at the event that should certainly be newsworthy. Or at least should be.
Afterwards, everyone was bused up to the Texas State History Museum at MLK and Congress for cocktails and munchies, and a long address by Buzz Aldrin. Kudos to Buzz for getting out there and proselytizing, but I’m not getting the feeling that the younger folks are really buying into it. Sure, some are, and people will always cluster to get his autograph, but does that translate into a deeper appreciation for the subject? I appreciate his efforts, but younger voices are needed. Unfortunately, the youngest man to walk on the Moon so far was born in 1936, so there’s not a big pool of talent to work with except for a whole bunch of us wannabes. I do have to admit that I’ve seen him speak many times over the years, most recently at the inauguration of efforts at Richland College to restore the Buzz Aldrin Planetarium where he gave mostly the same talk, and so it may not hold the same magic as it does for others to be in the presence of living transcendental history.
Which brings us to the topic of demographics. There were between 50-70 folks there during the day. I couldn’t identify more than about a dozen of them as being of Gen X or less. 20% isn’t bad, but it should be higher. I should drop Mr. Phillips a note about advertising the next one at the MBA school up the road at UT.
Props go out to Paragon SDC, whose man Shawn was probably the youngest person there. I’ve got to drop him a line about the Houston office of Paragon maybe participating with a display or speaker on their activities at my Moon Day event. That the company paid to send someone up to Austin for an event like this speaks well of their desire to cultivate their assets, something that’s all too rare these days. Speaking of cultivating assets, Tiffany Montague was a terrific ambassador for Google, and she was out canvasing for prospects throughout the event.
The point is, there should have been at least 70 youngsters (Gen X and under) at the event. There should have been more corporate presence from the many support companies, like Oceaneering, that have an economic presence in the state. That there wasn’t certainly wasn’t the fault of the organizers, and I think this was a terrific start to something that I hope they will continue, perhaps traveling around the great state of Texas to allow different pools of participants to contribute their own flavor to the proceedings. Texas is ripe with the kind of pioneer stock we need to get a real human spaceflight enterprise going, the kind that does generate more value than it consumes, and thereby grows the wealth of its backers.
Overall, I think it was a good conference. I learned a few things, did some networking, enjoyed the pleasures of the capitol area of the city. This was supplemented by a rather successful haul of materials for the Lunar Library from a variety of Half-Price Books (HPB) and Austin Comics, both of which I’ve been shopping since I was a little punk-a@# junior high schooler living over by the old airport back in the late 70s, fresh back from England and culture shocked beyond belief. HPB has also been bery, bery good to the Lunar Library over the years, and this year was no exception. From the hard-core 1964 edition of “Rocket Propulsion Elements” (the equations! the graphs! the diagrams! Total geek pr0n!) to a Christian fiction book, “Zero-G”, where a space tourist finds G-d.
One thing that did surprise me was the amount of local press coverage, something we don’t usually see much of up here in the metroplex. Some examples:
Examiner.com – Buzz Aldrin lights up Austin Space Summit
Austin-American Statesman – Summit explored space as the next economic frontier
weareaustin.com – Buzz Aldrin visits Austin, talks about future space travel
News 8 Austin – Leaders discuss job creation for ‘next economic frontier’
KXAN -Future of space trips debated in Austin
Next up on the space business conference circuit is the 8th Space Investment Summit on May 26th up the road in Chicago. As in years past, it’s being held in conjunction with the NSS’s International Space Development Conference, which runs through Memorial Day. The programs for both events are still being finalized, but it looks like a powerhouse line-up.
Coming up later in the summer is the dynamic duo of the NASA Lunar Science Forum 2010 from July 20th through 22nd, and then the NewSpace 2010 conference from July 23rd through 25th, both out in Silicon Valley.
Some folks may be focused on building a particular rocket, or going to a particular destination, but there are also a lot of folks focused on growing the space industry into an even greater contributor to the country’s GDP. For the latter, there are many interesting opportunities coming up in the near future.