Friday, November 16, 2018

Space Innovations & Parties in Atlanta

Just before the conference began.


Not many conference attendees understand and appreciate the months of preparation that goes into putting together a successful event. For the second year, a small group of dedicated Atlanta space professionals hosted a space conference, the Symposium on Space Innovations. We had a little more to work with this year after last year's first successful event, but we had ambitious goals: increasing from one day to two days, boosting the number of registrants, securing more sponsors, and booking higher profile speakers. And we did quite well! I'm uncertain what the final count was, but we had close to 200 attendees!

I'm a space loving extrovert. Surrounded by like-minded people doing great things, I feel alive and vibrant. Although most certainly not a morning person, I was happy to be there at Georgia Tech at 7 AM on Tuesday to set up and prepare for the event. My company Astralytical was again a sponsor but I opted not to have a booth, instead dedicating myself to social media, meet & greet, and after-party planning activities.

The top of the morning was a briefing by retired Admiral James Ellis, Chairman of the National Space Council Users' Advisory Group. I've been following the NSpC and UAG activities closely. It was a pleasure to meet Admiral Ellis in person, a great speaker who commanded the attention of the audience. We are all space users and he asked us all for input. The space policy geek that I am, I would love to be part of the NSpC in some capacity in the future.

During the morning parallel sessions, I chose the Space Science & Deep Space Missions track. The Lunar Exploration Advisory Group (LEAG) meeting was going on in Maryland, but we had our own lunar exploration discussions. It was fun to get an update from my graduate school labmate Addie on the latest activities and successes in my former university group. Dropping marbles into sand and floating around in microgravity – for science!

Our lunch speaker was former astronaut and current CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company, Franklin Chang-Díaz. I had heard interviews with him and had the impression he was a good guy, and I was correct. He gave us an overview of the VASIMR engine and spoke a bit about his experience as a 7-time space flyer. His push is for humanity to become a multi-planet species. He sees the VASIMR engine as the diesel trucking solution of the future.

With astronaut Franklin Chang-Díaz

Following lunch, I was the moderator for the Rise of Commercial Space panel. This was my first time moderating a panel and I was quite excited about it. One of my panelist had fallen ill a couple days before and was unable to attend, but I made sure she was there in spirit. I kicked off the panel with one of my questions, then asked one of her's. The audience took over from there.

It was great fun when the discussion got heated over the debate about the usefulness of NASA's heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). One of the panelists had quite a strong opinion on the subject, admittedly mirroring my own opinion, though I stayed neutral. I was pleased when an audience member jumped in without raising his hand, passionately expressing the opposing point of view. Our missing panelist would have made the same points, so again I felt she was there in spirit. It was an amicable debate cut too short because of time constraints.

I wrapped up the panel asking a surprise question: what were the panelists most excited about in 2019? Universally, all four of us are excited about human spaceflight, both SpaceX and Boeing's plans to launch astronauts next year through NASA's Commercial Crew Program and the efforts to return humans to the Moon.

Moderating the Rise of Commercial Space panel

I chose the Human Spaceflight track during the afternoon parallel session. I learned about putting humans in hibernation during long space missions and got an update from Northrop Grumman about former Orbital ATK's latest activities.

The talks wrapped up with four-time astronaut and current professor Stephen Robinson who gave an excellent presentation about space shuttle reentry thermodynamics and his role with the space shuttle tile gap filling after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. I got to chat with him after his talk before he had to catch a flight home. I can't remember how the topic got brought up, but Stephen Robinson has the distinction of being the first person I've spoken with about my second book idea (which intimately involves astronauts). He was also the 50th astronaut I've ever met according to the list I've been keeping since high school.

Astronaut Stephen Robinson

The day was not done. We gathered elsewhere on the Georgia Tech campus to enjoy an evening reception: food and student posters. Mainly I chatted with a couple colleagues about space policy, travel, and science fiction before exhaustion from the day caught up with me.

We reconvened Wednesday morning with an opening talk by the Chief Technologist of the National Reconnaissance Office. He read from a script of prepared remarks with no slides, and I was told not to share anything on social media. Given how technical his talk was, slides would have been useful, but I understand his position. He then proceeded to dodge every question asked of him, including my question about collaborating with international allies. He didn't answer the questions but he was so skilled and smooth at not answering them.

The morning panel was about spaceports. Representatives from Georgia and Florida spaceports chatted together on the same panel, which makes sense given we're neighbors. I knew the Kennedy Space Center and Cecil Spaceport representatives from my days working in Florida, and the Camden representative is a colleague and former client of mine. The two emerging spaceports made good arguments about their benefits, including the ease of decision-making and operations. KSC/Cape Canaveral will always have a draw based on the existing infrastructure, expertise, and rich history.

During the morning parallel sessions, I chose the Space Resources & Materials track. My NASA Academy internship colleague Tracie gave an overview on her work about manufacturing in space on the International Space Station. I learned a bit more about the surface-bounded exosphere on the Moon and what it means for future lunar miners.

We ate lunch in the banquet hall and talked amongst ourselves. I sat with some ladies from Atlanta-based space company SpaceWorks and learned a bit more about their company culture. I also spent some time preparing for the next session.

I moderated the Next-Generation Launch & Propulsion Systems track after lunch. A really fun executive vice president from Rocket Lab gave an overview of their successful small launch company. Although I've never been there, I think Rocket Lab's spaceport in New Zealand is the most beautiful in the world. Unusual for a space conference, we had an 8-year-old boy attend and present a poster. This enthusiastic young student joined the speaker on stage and gave thumbs up throughout.

Moderating the Next-Generation Launch & Propulsion Systems track

A speaker from SpaceWorks gave an update about their company Generation Orbit and their suborbital vehicle X-60A. I am looking forward to seeing it fly in the next year or so.

In the final parallel session of the conference, I sat in on the Student Activities & Programs track. I recently attended an event hosted by two of the presenters so I was quite familiar with their work launching small sensors on weather balloons to teach students about building satellite payloads. I learned about the smallsat lab at nearby University of Georgia that I had no idea was so successful.

And finally, the moment I had been most excited about: the Georgia Space Alliance conference after-party Galactic Get-together. GSA began with the conference after-party last year and we're still in the process of building and growing. In the cold and rainy wind, I walked with two boxes to a nearby bar and restaurant that was closed for renovations. The owner was kind enough to open the venue just for us. As I struggled with the large GSA banner, helpers came in early to assist and we finally got it hanging. The personalized take-home GSA rocket name tags were a hit. Both conference attendees and local space enthusiasts mingled and relaxed with finger food, drinks, and space-themed napkins. I have plans to make the party even bigger next year!

We finally got the Georgia Space Alliance banner hung

Enjoying the GSA Galactic Get-together party

I'm so thankful for the efforts of my fellow conference organizing team members, especially Jud and Caleb. I'm looking forward to the third Symposium on Space Innovations next fall!

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