Commentary by Michael Mackowski
Part One – The Conference
I finally had the opportunity to attend the Space Access Conference, an event run by Henry Vanderbilt, a long-time space advocate from Phoenix. The conference’s focus is on “New Space” launch vehicle developers and the burgeoning suborbital market. I had been aware of this conference for some time, and despite that it is held in my home town, the conference content and my personal or business interests never overlapped sufficiently to motivate me to take time off work and attend. This year, things were quiet at work and I decided to see what it was all about.
The conference ran for three days (April 11-13) and I attended most of the first two. The nice thing about the program is that Henry limits it to a single thread so you don’t have to choose between parallel sessions. There was an interesting mix of speakers. Most were related to launch vehicles but there was also a good mix of astronomy (asteroids), history (DC-X), and far term concepts (space settlements).
The rocketry presentations were on varied levels. Some were from the more well-known companies like XCOR, while quite a few were folks doing this as a hobby or as students, some barely a step above high-powered hobbyist rocketry.
A topic that is getting more attention in several venues was also discussed, crowdfunding. Several New Space companies have successfully used this unique grass roots approach to getting seed money and there was at least one presentation and a panel on this topic. This source of funding did not exist five years ago, and ten years ago no one would have predicted it. Unexpected developments in areas unrelated to aerospace technology make this all the more fun.
From talking to folks who had attended the conference in the past, there seemed to be less hard technical content related to actual launch vehicle performance this year. I don’t pretend to know a lot about this market (particularly the suborbital launcher market) but I might guess that several of the companies that may have presented here in the past have now had some success (like SpaceX, Masten, XCOR) and have “graduated” past the level of what the SAS conference has to offer them. Or perhaps it was the lack of progress for some of the smaller firms (e.g., Armadillo).
Reports are that attendance was up over 2012 and it ran a full three days rather than two and a half as in the past. This is a good sign for this business and the semi-pro and student groups that are active in this field.
There was also a sense that the technology (rockets, materials, electronics, etc.) has advanced to the point where semi-amateur projects may graduate from high suborbital to actually achieving orbital flight. It also makes proposals like those from Planetary Resources and Golden Spike just a little less crazy. That’s encouraging.
Next Week: Part Two – The State of Space Development