You might think an event called the Space Symposium would be held in a galaxy far, far away, in a hotel bearing a strong resemblance to the Death Star, accessible only by stowing away on the Millennium Falcon.
But there’s no jump to hyperspace required. In fact, the Space Symposium takes place right here in Colorado Springs at The Broadmoor, turning the historic hotel into the epicenter of U.S. space industry and policy for four days in April.
What started in 1984 with about 250 attendees now attracts over 11,000 from all sectors of the space community. It is hosted by the locally headquartered Space Foundation, a nonprofit leader advocating for space awareness and education.
Think of the Space Symposium as a kind of cross between a trade show, an academic conference and a United Nations summit. Attendees include official representatives of spacefaring nations—yes, spacefaring is a word—executives from companies that will one day take us all into space, rocket scientists, employees from companies that make the rockets and robots already there, military officers, defense contractors, astronauts, authors, academics, educators and consuls of nations that have progressed from making a robotic space arm to sending cool people into space to video themselves playing David Bowie tunes (that’s Canada for the last one).
There’s even a special track for military leaders and civilians with Top Secret security clearance. Several top-ranking military leaders will take the podium, including Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command; Robert Work, deputy secretary of defense; Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force; and Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, administrator of NASA.
But it’s a civilian who is the headliner at this year’s 32nd symposium: Jeff Bezos. The Amazon.com founder and CEO also runs Blue Orbit, an aerospace company working toward viable commercial space flight.
Of course, Bezos’ is not the only corporation striving to be the first to carry average Joes into the cosmos. Leaders from SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will also be presenting during the event. Indeed, one leaves the Space Symposium with the overwhelming impression that investing in space might be a very good idea.
The curious thing about the event is that the romance of the great beyond remains intact in the midst of all its high level networking and technical expertise. There are few events that can reignite the excitement and the coolness—the wonder—connected to space that we all felt as children better than the Space Symposium.
It’s easy to think the golden age of space exploration has come and gone, marked by the end of the Apollo program, but walking past exhibitor booths advertising everything from rental space on satellites to actual androids makes you think differently.
“We’re now at a place in history where there’s enough momentum, and enough understanding of the risk involved, that private industry is beginning to move in that direction,” Sandra Magnus, Ph.D., told me at last year’s symposium. She’s the NASA astronaut and engineer who spent 134 straight days aboard the International Space Station, and was on the crew of STS-135, the final mission of NASA’s shuttle program. “We’re at a sort of turning point, if you will. The landscape’s wide open. It means there are a lot of opportunities out there.”
I also had a chance to speak with author and space activist P.J. O’Rourke at the 2015 event. “This event is really enthusiast driven,” he said. I pressed him on the question of the sometimes uneasy connection between exploration and entrepreneurship witnessed at the Space Symposium.
“Sure, money is made, but the enthusiasm is uniform,” he told me. “If you were to tap any of these people—from the CEO to someone who just got a job—and told them that if they were to enlist right now in the Air Force it would mean they could go to Mars, each and every one of them would drop everything in order to do it.”
Ticket to Space?
What is the future for commercial space travel? What is the connection between space exploration for scientific purposes and increased incursions of industry into the great beyond? To answer these questions, I reached out to Andy Weir, author of the best-selling novel The Martian, who will receive the Douglas S. Morrow Public Outreach Award during the 32nd Space Symposium.
“Commercial space travel is the way forward for the space industry,” Weir says. “Until there is a genuine market demand for space travel, the technology will not advance quickly. Commercial space companies like SpaceX and others are competing to drive the cost to LEO (low-Earth orbit) down. At some point, the price will be driven down low enough that middle-class Americans will be able to afford trips to space. Once that happens, we will see a space boom similar to the airline boom of the mid-20th century. The ensuing market demand and competition will drive prices down even further and will spur development of space hotels, trips to the moon, etc. The sky will no longer be the limit.”
It’s a great idea, but when is it going to happen?
“This all starts with national space agencies contracting out their launches to private entities, like NASA does with SpaceX,” Weir says. “At present, all the funding comes from the public sector. But once we reach that tipping point and the space boom begins, the resulting space industry will generate far more revenue in taxes for the government than the government paid to develop it in the early days.”
Whenever it happens, we’ll be standing by. And probably in line.