Commentary by Mike Mackowski
I attended the 33rd International Space Development Conference from May 14-18, held in Los Angeles, CA. This is only the second ISDC I have been to since the early 1990s, when I was able to attend more frequently (I went to the Tucson event held in 2000). In that time a lot of progress has been made in the development of space, but a lot of things are still the same.
This was a great conference from the perspective of being able to hear speakers offering the latest status and plans for all sorts of space exploration, business, and infrastructure initiatives. There were many “big names” from the space arena, including Buzz Aldrin, Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Greason (XCOR), astronauts (Richard Garriott, Chris Ferguson, Rick Searfoss, etc.), engineers and scientists (Dr. John Lewis, John Mankins, Geoffrey Notkin), and folks from the NewSpace community (Rick Tumlinson, Will Pomerantz, Taber McCallum, Art Dula, etc.). If anything, the conference was too big with too many tracks. Most days had seven or more parallel tracks. For someone like me who does not attend on a regular basis, and hopes to get some first hand updates on progress in these areas, you really have to pick and chose what sessions to attend. I thought there was some “fluff” that could have been eliminated to make things simpler (do we really need sessions on “Humans, Exponential Perception, Compassion, and the Universe”?).
On the plus side, I was pleased to hear first-hand updates on such subjects as XCOR’s Lynx suborbital vehicle, space elevators, space solar power, utilization of space resources, and approaches to building affordable space infrastructure. There seems to be a consensus in this space community that a flexible infrastructure is needed more than a focussed development program aimed at a specific destination (say, Mars). By developing elements that can be used by all of these goals (Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.) it is more likely that a sustainable space economy will actually occur.
Over the past few years there seems to have been a debate over NASA’s future plans. Should they develop the advanced technology we need to make space exploration and development less costly and more effective (infrastructure), or should they pick a destination and develop just the technology needed for that specific goal? Most people at this conference were promoting the infrastructure path, which makes sense to me as well. The problem is that this is difficult to sell. It is much easier to get excited about sending a crew to Mars (or wherever) than designing a propellant depot at L2. Critics say NASA needs specific goals, but achieving those goals might come cheaper (and safer?) if we are patient and develop the elements we need to achieve any of the possible goals first, and even better if we can do it via commercial programs rather than via government-owned assets.
The main disappointment I had at the conference was the lack of sessions on grass roots space advocacy. The membership of NSS is declining and aging. Many speakers encouraged us to get the word out to the general public about the exciting future of space exploration and development. This means grass roots, local level advocacy. There should have been sessions on doing small local conferences, how to work with schools, how to attract young members, how to find media contacts, how to write press releases, what to say to your Congressional representatives, etc. There were no formal sessions on this.
The advantage of attending a conference like this in person (as compared to reading the presentations on line), however, is that you get to network with other like-minded advocates. Socializing at meal functions, between sessions, and at the Chapters Assembly meeting allowed me to meet many other NSS chapter activists. We were able to swap some ideas and propose new ones. This, more than anything,made attending this conference worth the effort and expense.