Harriet BrettleApr 14, 2017

Postcard from the Space Symposium: Planetary Society outreach coordinator finds her place in space

Every April, people descend on Colorado Springs looking to find their place in space.

The annual Space Symposium brings together space leaders from around the world to discuss, address and plan for the future of space. The Global Grant Scholarship, awarded by the Space Generation Advisory Council, afforded me a chance to attend, and I look forward to sharing some key takeaways with you. ­­

My adventure began at the Space Generation Fusion Forum. This event, held in conjunction with the Space Symposium, brought together young adults from across the industry to discuss a range of topics from the new space economy to human spaceflight. One thing we all agreed on was the importance of engaging the public with science, something that as an outreach coordinator for the Planetary Society, I am particularly passionate about.

From the beginning of the Space Symposium, it was hard to miss the display space firm Blue Origin set up outside the conference. The centerpiece was the actual New Shepard rocket successfully launched into space five times. Blue Origin, like SpaceX, believes rocket reusability is the key to affordable spaceflight.

Next door was a mockup of Blue Origin’s capsule, which is being developed for space tourism. The spacecraft, seating six people, is made up of one-third windows. Screens running actual footage from a previous New Shepard flight were placed in a couple windows to provide visitors with a sneak peek of the view. It’s going to make for one hell of a ride!

Harriet Brettle inside the Blue Origin crew capsule
Harriet Brettle inside the Blue Origin crew capsule Image: Ariane Cornell

It’s also not every day you spot Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos hanging around, but no day at the Space Symposium is ordinary! Bezos told a growing crowd that the space industry is too small; we don’t fly often enough. Furthermore, the price of entry for starting a space business is too high. The industry is missing out on talent that goes elsewhere, because it’s less resource intensive to do things like create an app on your laptop at home than to build a rocket. Blue Origin’s mission is to bring costs down and begin a golden age of space exploration. The company’s motto is “Step by step, ferociously.” To do this, they need three things: talented people, money, and patience. Bezos assured the crowd that Blue Origin has all three.

Jeff Bezos in front of Blue Origin's New Shepard booster and a crew capsule mockup
Jeff Bezos in front of Blue Origin's New Shepard booster and a crew capsule mockup Image: Harriet Brettle

The exhibition halls were buzzing and full of color; representatives from organizations around the world were animatedly telling curious bystanders about their role in the space industry. There was even a chance to try out being an astronaut yourself! Boeing had a fully interactive simulator that let attendees attempt to dock with the International Space Station, while Lockheed Martin displayed a mock Orion console for docking with its Mars Base Camp. The Base Camp is Lockheed’s vision for sending humans to Mars by establishing a Mars-orbiting science laboratory.

There were representatives from space agencies, large aeronautical engineering firms, satellite startups and so much more. Every stand was aligned with the Planetary Society’s mission to advance space science and exploration, including Stellar Exploration, Inc., the company that originally built the society’s very own LightSail spacecraft!

Over the course of a week, speakers spoke of the future of the industry (noting the changing dynamic between government agencies and the commercial sector), the challenges of human spaceflight (what it really takes to be an astronaut), and technological advances yet to come (from the use of big data to rocket reusability). It was incredible to see so many different aspects of the space industry converging in one place.

Gwynne Shotwell, the COO of SpaceX, relived her company’s recent successful Falcon 9 relaunch. Quoting Arthur C. Clarke, she said

Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases:

(1) It’s completely impossible.

(2) It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing.

(3) I said it was a good idea all along.

Shotwell said a Falcon 9 re-launch cuts costs in half, so maybe, just maybe, SpaceX is onto something.

Sylain Laporte, President of the Canadian Space Agency, spoke about Canada’s ongoing astronaut recruitment process. The trainees are put through a series of rigorous tests. One involves doing as many pull-ups as possible, then hanging onto the bar. Then, when the recruits think the test is finally over, they were given the simple but infuriating task of using an Etch A Sketch. The point of the exercise is to test not just physical capabilities, but also how potential astronauts react to increasingly challenging and unexpected situations.

Another highlight of the Symposium was a panel of fifteen space agency leaders which included both long-established and emerging entities. The panel advocated for cooperation between countries, and stressed the importance of developing a strong STEM workforce.

Going to Mars is a focus for many. The European Space Agency is looking forward to Exomars 2020, and China plans to launch an Mars orbiter, lander and rover that same year. Russia, Japan, China and the U.S. have all identified the Moon as a good testing ground for Mars exploration. Pascale Ehrenfreund, CEO of the German Aerospace Center, added that going to Mars will inspire the next generations and our politicians. I hope she’s right.

In the exhibit hall
In the exhibit hall

The final dinner of the symposium, hosted by SpaceX, celebrated two new entrants to the Space Technology Hall of Fame. This award recognizes innovative technologies, originally designed for use in space, that have impacted and revolutionized our lives.  

The first inductee, ActivePure, is an air-cleaning technology that was originally developed by NASA. It eliminates ethylene gas onboard the International Space Station by using a honeycomb-like matrix to transform air molecules into oxidizers. These oxidizers are then used to destroy contaminants like fungi and mold. The technology has since been made available to consumers to reduce surface micro-organisms and airborne allergens.

The second inductee, Florikan, is a slow-release fertilizer originally developed to grow crops in space. The fertilizer is coated in polymers that control when and how much nutrients are released into soil. This controlled release enabled astronauts on the ISS to focus on other variables when measuring plant growth in micro-gravity. Florikan is now using the same technique to optimize plant nutrition and reduce environmental impact back down on earth. Who says space has never done anything for us?!

On the Sunday after the Space Symposium ended, the Space Foundation Discovery Center hosted a Yuri’s night celebration. Yuri’s night events take place all around the world to celebrate the first human spaceflight, made by Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. The party included stars, storm troopers and space suits, and it was a privilege to meet with former NASA astronaut Gregory Johnson and former Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.

All in all, the Space Symposium was a brilliant chance to meet Planetary Society members from all over the world. It’s fantastic to be a part of a global community of space enthusiasts, and inspiring to see where the space industry is heading.

The most important takeaway from the Symposium? The wonderful world of space is bigger and better than you can ever imagine.

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