Saturday, March 13, 2010

NSRC - The Press Conference

NSRC press conference panel. Left to right: Mark S, Pete W, Michael M, Alan S, Jeff G, Stephen A
On the first day of NSRC (2/18/2010) at 12:00 there was a lunch and a press conference. After hearing about several of the vehicles that will take scientists (and hopefully me) up to near-space, possibly several times a day, it was time to hear a few announcements and ask questions.

I sat next to a table close to the speaker panel with David Masten - CEO of Masten Space Systems, John Gedmark and Matthew Isakowitz from Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Pete Worden from NASA and others. An impromptu discussion between David, Pete, John and Matt over lunch about the fresh NASA budget announcement and its outcomes was cut short by the press conference itself, where Pete was a member of the panel.

The panel was composed of a variety of people representing NASA, commercial suborbital space and research: Mark Sirangelo - Executive Vice President of Sierra Nevada Corporation and Chairman of the Board of Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Pete Worden - NASA Ames Center Director, Michael Mealling - Vice President of Business Development of Masten Space Systems, Alan Stern - Associate Vice President at the Southwest Research Institute, Jeff Greason - President of XCOR and Stephen Attenborough - Commercial Director of Virgin Galactic.

Each of the panel members made a statement. Mark announced expansion of CSF by signing up universities as members. Pete repeated Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver's announcement about money for Commercial Space. Michael talked about their student payload competition and giving a free flight to the winner. Alan expressed his excitement about the money that NASA will be putting towards education and research, and announced a $1,000,000 budgeted by SwRI to buy suborbital seats and develop payloads. Jeff was "cautiously very encouraged" about the plan and content about NASA educational outreach announced earlier, from which XCOR will probably benefit. Stephen didn't have any announcements but it seemed like he realized more than before how research and education could be a secondary market market for Virgin Galactic suborbital capabilities in addition to space tourism.

There were about twelve members of the press, from blogs, web sites, magazines and newspapers. The questions varied from flight rate to what specific research suborbital flights can be used for. For the casual reader of even the space enthusiast reading this it's important to understand that what's transformative in the suborbital commercial space market is not necessarily the altitude (although that does uniquely position it for upper atmospheric research as Pete noted and bridges the gap between what can be done with the shuttle or with a sounding rocket), it's the high flight rate and as a result driving down the cost. Combined, these two mean access to a lot more people, research and universities and the ability to repeat an experiment, use many test subjects, etc. over a short period of time, rather than a long wait time between tests. In addition, a lot more can be done in three to five minutes of micro-gravity than in 20 seconds, the current availability on parabolic flights.

An interesting question that was asked was about marketing and explaining of what suborbital means. This question goes beyond suborbital research and can be extended to the entire space program. The sad truth is that very few people care about space very much, not understanding the contribution that space had thus far to life on Earth. Specifically regarding suborbital research, Pete noted that marketing is not the right word, but it is important to explain to the potential customers (science and education) the great opportunities in this new type of vehicles - "It is way cool as it is".

I asked two questions. The first one was about standardization of payloads. It was encouraging to see that there are standards being formed and that the craft providers are aiming to support as many of the available standards as possible rather than creating their own standard and trying to lock in customers. This means that a university can design a payload and fly it with more than one provider rather than work in reverse and choose a provider first and then design the payload for that specific provider. That will definitely promote healthy competition and accelerate development.

The second question I asked was about the average age of space industry employees, which has risen since the Apollo days (according to a report by the Department of Labor from May 2005, "the average production worker is 53 years of age and the average engineer is 54 years of age." and "aerospace workers industry wide, 30 years of age or younger, fell by almost two thirds, from 18 percent in 1987 to 6.4 percent in 1999."). I asked whether suborbital flights and research will lower the average age again. That question drew a lot of attention from the panelists and the crowd. Michael noted how he just turned forty, and that he was the youngest of the group, which to some extent proved a point. But he also noted that he and David Masten are the oldest in the company, which means there is new blood coming into the commercial space industry. My interpretation is that younger people may be reluctant to go work for NASA but are more inclined to work for commercial companies. Pete noted he was the oldest guy in the panel, and jokingly stated that "old age and treachery beats youth and confidence any day", noted that replenishing the workforce is critical, but said not to "discount what us old guys can do". It was Alan, I think, who talked about the future and having students conduct experiments in suborbital vehicles and even scouts getting a space badge. Mark talked about a program they had at Sierra Nevada to partner with universities and aerospace companies to form espace - the center for space entrepreneurship, which reaches out to high school and college students to entice them to go into the aerospace industry. Jeff noted that other engineering industries don't seem to have that problem, and that the commercial space companies will turn that around rather than reaching out to students. In his words - "pull, not push". Stephen said that no one wants to live in Mojave, and yet Scaled Composites in Mojave are able to attract the brightest young engineers because they know they work on something which is important and that they may get a ride in what they are building one day.

The recording I made of the press conference (using my Livescribe pen) can be found here.

If you prefer watching the video (albeit with less clear sound) you can watch it through this video, courtesy of NASA Watch.

No comments: