Monday, March 16, 2020

The 7th Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference

Before the chaos of the coronavirus and mass cancellations, there was the 7th Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference. I’ve attended all 7 of them, usually spaced 1.5 to 2 years apart. This year, I was a member of the organizing team. In addition to running the social media accounts, I organized a panel and helped with other things along the way. Additionally, I gave a talk and was a panelist for another panel.

It was fun but anxiety-inducing to organize a panel on the connection between suborbital research on new vehicles launched by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic and orbital research on the ISS. I’ve organized panels before and have no problems identifying and inviting potential panelists. I confirmed four speakers: two ISS managers (one from NASA and one from my former employer CASIS / ISS National Lab, a nonprofit that handles Earth-benefitting ISS research) and two researchers who have flown experiments to suborbit and orbit (a NASA engineer and a university medical doctor and professor).

What made this panel different was a SpaceX CRS launch to the ISS scheduled Sunday night after the official start of the conference. Two of my panelists were attending the launch. If the launch was delayed a day, they would be unable to attend my panel and I’d be down to two panelists. It turns out the SpaceX launch was delayed – by 5 days! So my panelists attended the conference and then attended the launch.

Snow! Just before conference kick-off on Sunday.

In addition to constant social media posting and engagement, I staffed the registration desk Sunday evening and Monday morning. I’m an extrovert, so greeting people when they arrive is fun. Find their name badge, hand them their program and flyer packet, give them some give-away swag (this time, a conference pen and a Virgin Galactic “remove before flight” keychain tag), let them know about the ZeroG Corporation raffle, and ask if they have any questions. If they are a friend, catch up a little bit with small talk. If they are a journalist, student, or VIP, there was additional information to tell them. I had helpers during both sessions who I trained to take over when things got too busy.

Sunday evening was the conference opening reception. We wandered around the hotel’s side lobby while caterers carried plates of food around and a couple Colorado politicians spoke words of welcome. I spent most of the time at the registration desk but ran off for a few minutes at time to take photos of the speakers for social media posts and grab some food.

As he was filling out his raffle ticket, three-time space shuttle astronaut and first commercial astronaut Charlie Walker, who I’ve met several times at this conference throughout the years, informed me that he had experienced plenty of microgravity time and would give away his ZeroG parabolic flight ticket if he won. He offered to give it to me. What a story that would be – an astronaut winning a raffle and giving away his ticket! Every time he saw me at the conference, he knew the exact number of hours until the winner would be selected on Wednesday morning. He was so excited about it for someone who didn’t plan to keep the winnings!

Astronaut Charlie Walker filling out his ZeroG Corporation raffle ticket

Alan Stern kicked off the talks Monday morning. Although he is a planetary scientist and can speak endlessly about Pluto and other Kuiper belt objects, he’s also passionate about the commercial space industry and suborbital science. This conference is his baby and he has tickets to fly himself with an experiment someday. As a grad student, Alan was my inspiration realizing I could be a scientist and work in the space industry simultaneously, that the two worlds can come together.

Other Monday morning speakers included Ryan Hamilton of Southwest Research Institute, Kevin Coleman of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial spaceflight office, George Whitesides of Virgin Galactic, Steve Squyers of Blue Origin, Eric Stallmer of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Steven Collicott of Purdue University and CSF SARG, and finally, my favorite, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who high-fived me as he was boarding an elevator after his talk.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaking at NSRC-2020

Fellow book author Alan Ladwig had a whole table for book signing. His book is a historical look at space tourism. I had brought 6 copies of my book to sign and sell. We traded: a signed copy of mine for one of his. He’s also an artist and doodled as he signed. He gave a talk about his book during the conference which was great because it was full of amusing old stories.

Alan Ladwig and I showing off our books at NSRC-2020

I attended as many of the talks as I could so I could be there with my phone to take photos and write up content for social media. I was constantly sharing the posts of others as well. It kept me quite busy. I didn’t take as much time as I usually do to network in the hallway.

My talk was second-to-last Monday afternoon. I presented insights on how to market suborbital spaceflight to millennials based on the research I conducted for my book. I didn’t know if anyone would still be in the room or if they’d be off at the poster and networking session starting 15 minutes later. There was still a small audience, so I gave it my best. And despite some initial technical difficulties displaying my presentation correctly, it went great! There was no time for audience questions, but I got so many complements after the talk.

I wrote up a one-pager on how to market spaceflight to millennials, available here.

Giving my talk on how to market spaceflight to millennials at NSRC-2020

Tuesday was exciting to me because of one newly arriving attendee: Beth Moses. She is Virgin Galactic’s astronaut trainer. In 2018, she became the first woman astronaut on a commercial vehicle, the first woman suborbital astronaut, and the first person to unstrap and float around in a suborbital spaceflight. She was the seventh person to be awarded FAA commercial astronaut wings, the first six being pilots and she being the first passenger. She’s my suborbital astronaut role model.

I met her briefly at the registration desk, which I wasn’t working at the time but happened to be there resting. I sat front row to watch her panel with Michelle Peters of ZeroG on how to train for microgravity research missions. I finally got a chance to pose for a photo with her at the VIP reception that evening.

Meeting Beth Moses

Tuesday was also the panel I organized which went quite well! We only had a few minutes for audience questions, but the information presented was great and Q&A session went well too. Mission success.

The very last hour of the Tuesday afternoon sessions was the panel I was added to a week before the conference on the importance of researchers flying with their research on suborbital spaceflight missions. There were seven panelists, which is a huge number for a one-hour panel, but it worked out pretty well. Only astronaut Charlie Walker gave intro slides and the rest was Q&A. I took a different approach than most of the others and spoke about what I learned from researching for my book about normalizing spaceflight, creating that human connection, bringing spaceflight to the masses to stabilize the field financially and politically the way we take air travel for granted today, and opening space to other scientific disciplines such as psychologists researching the way humans perceive the planet and ourselves after experiencing spaceflight.

Wednesday was the final day of the conference. I sat in on talks by my graduate advisor Josh Colwell and former lab college Addie Dove of UCF, reminiscing about the experiments I spent years on in grad school.

The two raffle winners were announced for free tickets on ZeroG’s “weightless” parabolic aircraft flights. I’ve flew two campaigns in grad school and absolutely loved it, even though I got sick. I’d still fly again in a heartbeat! I was chatting with my former CASIS colleague Ed Harris who now works at Keck Observatory in Hawaii. He was in the middle of telling me that if he won, he plans to donate his ticket to a scientist in Hawaii who can fly Hawaiian student experiments, when suddenly the whole lobby was looking over at us. Ed had won! I’m so glad because his generous donation to support Hawaiian schools is much better than me flying for a third time.

The final session of the conference, right after lunch, was full of more top speakers. My favorite space journalist Jeff Foust of Space News gave an analytical view of suborbital spaceflight: where it was predicted to be, where it is now, and where it could grow to be. Beth Moses gave another talk, this one a more detailed look at her job as an astronaut trainer and research facilitator with more details about her own spaceflight. Dylan Taylor of Space for Humanity inspiring talk about the philosophy of opening up spaceflight with ideals that mirror my own. And Alan Stern wrapped up the conference with thank-yous.

Those 5 remaining books I brought with me to autograph and sell? I sold all of them! I probably could have sold a couple more if I had brought more.

Why do I continue being involved in NSRC when my work is now broader and I’m no longer directly working with suborbital research? It’s a small an intimate gathering, a welcoming community, a good mix of multidisciplinary attendees and presenters, and very forward-thinking topics. It’s a seamless fusion of science, engineering, public outreach, government, and commercial space. And because it’s not annual, it’s not repetitive in an ever-changing field. Even though my work is broader now, I still wish to be a suborbital astronaut/ space tourist. When I fly, I’ll take an experiment with me. I’ve trained to be a suborbital scientist. Aside from a lunar astronaut, suborbital astronaut who I desire to become.

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