Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Trip Report: NewSpace 2012

[Okay, I'm late with this, but the information won't go away just because I'm a week or two late reporting it. Major caveat: These opinions are my own, and do not reflect those of NASA, my employer, or any other organization.]

The NewSpace Conference began as the annual gathering of citizen advocates of the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), but also has become a place where investors, entrepreneurs, and technologists go looking to start businesses. How does this differ from the International Space Development Conference (ISDC), which I've attended numerous times and chaired last year? As Inigo Montoya might say, "Allow me to 'splain."

Politically, SFF is the major libertarian space organization, so the conference very much focuses on free-market approaches to space development. The National Space Society, which hosts ISDC, is more of a middle-of-the-road, Democrat/Republican organization. NSS isn't entirely focused on private sector development of space; they also support government (meaning NASA) driven activities. NSS is more of a "big tent," interested in multiple technologies and approaches to space. This difference in philosophy is likewise reflected in the formats of the two conferences. With so many diverse interests involved, the ISDC is often broken into multiple tracks and, as a result, multiple rooms. With NewSpace, the conference has essentially one focus, and its sessions are held in one room. Not saying one's better than the other, just observing a difference.

And, to repeat, NewSpace is all about using the free market to get human beings to settle the solar system. In recent years, that message is getting a larger audience. One SFF member told me that attendance has grown from around 75 to 450 in only a few years.

Given the free-market focus, one might presume that the audience is treated to a long series of Ayn Rand lectures. In fact, I can't recall Rand's name being invoked once, or any other philosopher for that matter. Individuals espoused philosophies, but they were their own or existing philosophies expressed their own way. Free-market principles have gone native.

Economic Development
NewSpace 2012 is held in Silicon Valley, the community of high-tech companies inhabiting the southern end of San Francisco Bay. Since the 1970s, the area has been an incubator for bright engineering ideas, from silicon chip-based integrated circuits to personal computers and mass-produced software (you might have heard of Steve Jobs). The area is also known for its aggressive venture capital market--the investors go where the money is, and the money is very much in technology. Today it is home to Apple, Google, Intel, and other high-tech giants, not to mention NASA Ames Research Center.

In the last ten years, some folks who got rich developing software, hardware, or web applications have put their money into space. What's happening now is that others are starting to get into the game, and the Space Frontier Foundation is making efforts to help that along by leading a space business plan competition, which awards prizes to space-based or space-related businesses. The rules can be found here, but the biggest draw for the 55 competitors was that the first-place winner received $100,000 and the second-place winner won $10,000. Much of the Friday session was taken up by the presentations and Q&A by the judges. The winners were announced at the gala on Friday.

Again, the SFF's focus on free-market solutions to space allows it to concentrate on this type of competition.

Working Out the Roles of Government and the Private Sector
Given all the rugged individualism and focus on the private sector, it might surprise you (as it did me) how many government officials attended NewSpace, especially from NASA. This is because the Obama administration has continued the Bush administration's policy of encouraging private companies to launch cargo and crew members to the International Space Station. Not only that, the Federal Aviation Administration has had a keen interest in expanding the licensing of commercial launches as well as suborbital launches to the edge of space. (Lest you think the libertarians are warming to government, I heard at least one person say that the government's primary interest in supporting all this activity is to grow the tax base and avoid the high cost of NASA.)

The businessfolk in the room were interested in government performing the following roles:
  • Sharer of new technologies: Nearly all of the basic research and development for space technology was developed by military officers or government civil servants (Werhner von Braun was Director of Marshall Space Flight Center, not a contractor). NASA and its predecessor organization NACA have done a lot of the original R&D, discovered basic principles of a science or technology, and then once they proved them out, made it available to the American public or the private sector to exploit for mass production. This practice goes back nearly 100 years, as NACA was formed in 1915. NASA is still doing research, and the session given by James Reuther, Acting Director of the agency's "game-changing" technology program was well attended.
  • Purchaser of products and services: Aside from basic R&D, government doesn't produce a whole lot. Farms, construction materials, cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, processed foods, computers, and millions of other small products are built by individuals or companies in the private sector. It's even written into many government procurement laws that if an equivalent product or service already exists to perform a certain task and that product or service costs less than what the government could do it for, the agency in question has to purchase the private product/service first. Such is the logic behind the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and its follow-ons CCDev and CCICap. More on that later.
  • Early adopter of new technologies: Sometimes NASA, Department of Defense (DoD), or other government agencies will mandate that new technologies be incorporated into test programs. This provides economic development and "pushes the envelope" of what current technologies can do. Government might win by getting something cool at a low cost, the company wins by having a guaranteed buyer. There was quite a bit of talk about "public-private partnerships" as well.
  • Builder of infrastructure: There are things government can do more effectively or willingly than the private sector simply because there's no profit in it. Airports come to mind, along with seaports or (once upon a time) power systems, canals, or air traffic control systems. Another form of "infrastructure" would be legal regimes, regulations, and standardized "rules of the road" for conducting business. For example, NASA and the FAA reached an agreement on how commercial space-launch services would be certified for passenger safety. Businesses prefer consistency in the rule of law so that they know what it will cost to comply with government regulations. The NASA/FAA agreement was welcome, but many in the audience were concerned that the specific rules for passenger safety had not yet been nailed down. Stay tuned.
What was refreshing was to hear the rational debates that were being held about the proper role(s) of government in the private sector.

Where the Technology's Going
It's hard to overlook the rockets--we don't get to space without them--or the people who are building them: Elon Musk, David Masten, John Carmack, etc. However, rockets are expensive, especially if you want to build them so that they carry enough mass into space to do something useful and so that they don't explode. So if you're smart, you don't get into the rocket-building business. As I said, it's expensive. It's also complex--rocket science, after all--and requires a lot of industrial capability that is not easy to build or acquire. However, that is not what the people competing in the Space Business Plan Competition were doing. They were looking for ways to play in space for considerably fewer dollars.

For example, the presentations I watched focused on nano-scale materials to increase germ resistance on surfaces inside space habitats; a "smart propellant" for satellite thrusters that would only activate when a current is passed through it; and a crowd-sourced "cube sat" (satellites 10 centimeters to a side), which was a project Science Cheerleader and I supported.

In each of these cases, the competitors were not aiming to build a big, friggin' rocket, space station, or anything like that. Their goal was to specialize in some tiny part of the market that had the potential for massive growth. Materials are everywhere. Cube sats are becoming more common as "Moore's Law" continues to double the number of transistors per computer every 18 months. The aim, as with everything in Silicon Valley, is to develop the "killer app," that one really cool and useful technology that suddenly everyone must have. Consider Facebook, or YouTube for example.

Throughout the "NewSpace" sector, entrepreneurs are hoping to recreate this industry in the Silicon Valley image so that, eventually, more and more private citizens have access to space. This is still not as easy as some would prefer. The rocket equation is a lot more resistant to technological advances than Moore's Law because most computers are not trying to accelerate to Mach 25 before entering an environment with high radiation, no gravity, and no air. Still, the true believers are hopeful, as am I, that some genius will produce that killer app or apps that enables rockets to be as common as laptop computers. I'm not holding my breath, mind you, but I can hope.

Space Launch System
I'm going to keep my remarks short on this, but at one point, I was faced with a PowerPoint slide that read, "SLS Delenda Est: The Senate Launch System [sic] must be destroyed." Obviously I've got some hard work ahead of me in my day job.

The Big Picture/Vision
As I noted earlier, the Space Frontier Foundation is interested primarily in free individuals settling throughout the solar system under a regime of personal freedoms and laissez-faire capitalism. Other individuals speaking in the "visionary" sessions focused on the future we're likely to face with ever-advancing computers, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics--the Singularity, or something approaching it. As Arthur C. Clarke once put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." At the rate technology is advancing, all I can say is prepare to be astounded.

Listening to the talk at the conference, the future would seem to belong to the smart, the rich, and the tech-savvy--the smart people's 1 percent, if you will. That's great if you fit into one of those categories. The question I asked during the last session was and is: "What do you do with those who are none of the above?" I didn't get a satisfactory answer from anybody on the panel. Perhaps they didn't see my intent, but there are folks out there who are unknowingly or willfully uneducated--whose jobs will increasingly be replaced by ever-smarter machines. What's to become of them? The number of niches being filled by advanced technology will continue to increase. If you can't afford all the cool toys or your culture or religion forbids them, how do you coexist with "magic?" I have no answers, either, but that's a conversation that needs to be had as we continue our quest to send people to live beyond Earth.

NewSpace was enjoyable because I had a lot of friends there and because there were a lot of interesting things going on. There's a real future being made in the entrepreneurial sector of space. How it all unfolds, only time will tell.

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