A couple of weeks ago I attended the International Space Development Conference in LA. This was my first time attending the conference and I found it had a lot to offer. Many people involved with Icarus were present, gave talks, and generally provided thoughtful discussion in the sessions. My professional experience is heavily involved with creating physical spaces which encourage meaningful interactions, communication, and learning. I have assisted many professionals in the creation of compelling narratives for presentations and conferences and I have organized various conference, events, and pop-up space myself. Therefore, I have a lot of thoughts on these aspects of the event. Also, the event was massive and my experience of it was only one small slice of what was available. I haven’t figured out how to be in more than one place at once…yet.
Conference Opening – Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti
Mr Garcetti offered an opening speech about how LA is the Nexus of the Space Industry providing numerous examples of organizations that have chosen LA as a base of operations. His points were compelling and he was a great speaker. There seems to be a few hubs of space industry growth including LA and Dallas TX and maybe even San Francisco for certain technology solutions. I thought Mr. Garcetti’s presence gave a lot of credibility to the conference and the seriousness of the industry as a whole. He tweeted this while at the conference. His speech had a lot of energy that was radiated out through the attendees in the audience. It was clearly not meant to be technical or even promoting a certain policy in the space industry, but was more of a declaration of open arms to space related organizations on behalf of the city of LA.
After Apollo – Many people feel we are on the cusp of space renaissance.
I’m 34 years old so I don’t remember Apollo. For all my childhood years I was told stories from the Apollo era and although jubilant excitement could always be sensed in the people telling me those stories, the popular feeling about space travel and the industry was that it was bureaucratic and expensive. For a long time, I have been talking about the need for the Apollo generation to let go of Apollo and instead focus on the future. In order to inspire people, we have to create a narrative that is forward facing and hopeful; something they can be a part of themselves. This conference presented an opportunity for me to see that many people are doing just that. Finally.
There is an air of excitement that lunar, Mars, and asteroid projects are quickly becoming technologically feasible and the will to fund these projects is becoming available. I agree, and it’s really fun to watch the Apollo guys light up with an increasing possibility of seeing projects they’ve worked on their entire career be realized.
It seems like the industry is generally embracing different modalities of organization and learning as well. A number of talks were focused on employing technology solutions in novel ways. There was discussion of the hugely successful Planetary Resources Kickstarter campaign for the ARKYD telescope. That project alone was successful in no small part to the promise of selfie in space to contributors. There were presentations about pop-up events called ESIL, which are hyper focused on one specific issue with the goal of producing a solution or part of a solution to that particular topic in booklet form after each event. I believe the emerging maker and hacker-space ideologies could catalyze space related technology development as well as capture the imagination of a whole new generation of people with the will and determination to populate the solar system. Even project plans were getting a massive redesign. One talk displayed project plans from NASA in the 1980’s versus a rethought project plan for space development today. The major difference was that the modern project plan was modular, and iterative, wherein the old project plan progressed along one route for a long time and a great expense before there was a prototype to test or a moment to reevaluate a course of action.
Talks on Policy – Decidedly leaning toward infrastructure development.
It seemed that the group as a whole agreed that there was a need for near term space infrastructure projects to be undertaken and funded. In the past, I have not experienced so much of a consensus for this pathway of development. Instead I am accustomed to groups within the conference avidly promoting lunar development, Mars missions, asteroid mining and infrastructure waypoints specifically and independently. The general view was that although developing LEO fuel depots was “not sexy,” they allowed for a multitude of space based projects to move forward concurrently and in the long view would drastically lessen the cost of longer missions to the Moon, Mars, or asteroids. I agree. There was also a lot of talk about the need to create a pipeline to train a large number of people with various skills to live on and be employed on such LEO rigs and stations. The idea that astronauts alone were all that was needed was largely dismissed, much to my delight.
Women In Space – There were no women in the space.
There was a panel discussion titled: “Women In Space,” that included three different women. Outside of that panel the only time I saw women on stage was in the role of moderator. (I did see the PR Kickstarter talk by Caitlyn O’Keefe, but that had to do with marketing, social media and PR, not space science directly.) They were there in the audience however; and they did ask a number of thoughtful questions. I will say this, briefly, women need to be present on panels about other topics besides “Women in Space” in equal numbers that they are represented in the industry, at least. I don’t think it is effective to separate an already marginalized group, because as it turns out, in real life, women are simply part of multimember teams and organizations working on developing the space industry. They are figuring out how to mine asteroids. Why weren’t they talking about mining asteroids? They are trying to design, build, and fund a lunar base. How come they weren’t talking about that work?
The space industry needs to be more inclusive of all different types of people in order to be successful and relevant into the future. If young people, minorities, and women can’t see themselves working in the industry because there are few similar role models, who will take the baton from the aging Apollo generation managers?
Technology at the Conference – At a technology based conference technology should work.
There is no doubt about it, we are entering a world which is heavily reliant on technology solutions to bring people together even when geography does not allow it. Several of the sessions I attended were delivered via Skype, however the hotel provided wi-fi did not support the bandwidth required to effectively host a Skype video conference. It is typical of hotel wi-fi to be subpar but it should not be acceptable as it delays and foreshortens the time to learn and connect between attendees and presenters. In addition to Skype issues, I was unable to tweet about the event as cell service in the hotel was very poor and the hotel wi-fi credentials for attendees were not widely posted. I also did not take many photos at the event (hence lack of photos here) because I couldn’t post about it right away.
In addition to the subpar wi-fi it should be understood that much of the time people travel a long way to a professional conference for the personal experience gained through face-to-face interactions at the event. Presenting at a conference via Skype should be a rare occurrence and done only when absolutely necessary.
Structure of the Conference Itself – How many tracks makes sense?
The conference was separated into numerous tracks of information which shifted from day to day. Although I found the content of each talk I attended compelling, it was somewhat confusing to navigate and decide which talk I would most want to attend at any given time. I felt the tracks could have been more clearly defined and some could have been combined to create a more clear delineation of topics for attendees to choose from. I also felt that the number of tracks at any given time divided the attendee base into groups that were on the small side. Small groups at conferences sometimes don’t generate the excitement, interest, and questions that slightly larger groups do with ease. The single track of the Starship Congress for an event of its size was ideal, especially for the morning sessions. I don’t think the ISDC would have been optimal with a single track. Three of four, as opposed to six or seven, would have created more opportunities to people to meet and commingle with like minded professionals in a somewhat personal atmosphere more successfully, in my opinion.