I attended the Canadian Space Summit 2013 in Ottawa Canada this week. The following posts are my rough notes. Disclaimer: I jotted down what I understood but I am likely to get names, comments, and some information wrong. Please contact me if you feel I have misquoted you or otherwise mistated some of the conversations, and I will be happy to set the record straight.
Conference Theme: Canada’s Space Economy
Wayne Ellis, the Canadian Space Society President spoke first, providing an introduction and thanks. He set the Conference Theme: Canada’s Space Economy.
He feels we are at a crossroads for space activities in Canada. RadarSAT 1 ceased operations this year, although it operated well beyond its designed lifetime. It represented a key Canadian satellite capability – an excellent example of Canada’s contribution to global economy. He mentioned the tragedy in the Philippines – the space technologies provided weather awareness early on – and now can help save lives, and direct rescue efforts. Space systems and technologies are supporting analysis of climate change.
The flip side of this kind of space economy is more debris in space, “high priced real estate” in space. Right now, budgets are contracting due to weak economies. We have to to recognize that reality when advocating where to place effort for space initiatives. Last year the Canadian [David Emerson] Aerospace review was released. The outcomes of those recommendations will direct future investments.
Wayne mentioned the Gravity movie – a great communication device to show some of the key elements of how things happen in space. He also mentioned the Hadfield Effect – what Colonel Hadfield was doing, was using social media to make space more real for people on Earth. It was a very effective way to make space real. Maybe it got people to think of going into space (such as a summit sponsor that offers Lynx space flights).
Keynote Speaker – NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaeir
The keynote speaker was Bill Gerstenmaier – the Associate Administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Directorate for NASA. From his bio:
“In this position, Gerstenmaier provides strategic direction for all aspects of NASA’s human exploration of space and cross-agency space support functions of space communications and space launch vehicles. He provides programmatic direction for the continued operation and utilization of the International Space Station, development of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, and is providing strategic guidance and direction for the commercial crew and cargo programs that will provide logistics and crew transportation for the International Space Station.”
His themes were Innovation and Collaboration. He said, clearly budgets are shrinking – we need a motivation / stimuli for innovation. He once gave a talk “Inspiration by Desperation” – people do really good work in the space industry when bad situations require genius innovation – ex Apollo 13. Another example he gave was of a hail storm peppering foam tanks of shuttle, causing 6000 impacts…His team said they could repair it. They had a software program to monitor 32,000 tiles on the bottom of the shuttle – and they modified it to take care of 6000 tank dings in a short time. They did all this without management, no process or formal agreement. It was the ultimate innovation of a team that had to make it work perfectly. The message to the room is – turn these tough problems into an opportunity to rise above adversity.
He also mentioned when they shut down the shuttle program – as a result of that adversity they chose to go out to private industry and get cargo contracts and invested $3B of taxpayer money and achieved success. Now the International Space Station is a platform to allow the space economy to emerge – corporations can use it perhaps, such as biomedical technologies, which use the space environment to get a different look on phenomena we see onEarth. How can we use Station to be an incubator for new creative endeavours? Bill challenged us to think about how to use what is in orbit right now.
He switched to his theme of Collaboration. It is extremely important that countries will work together internationally – to see all the countries that are working in space, all are facing same crossroads, as space is becoming something people take for granted. He thinks the general public see space as a canvas to portray the emotions and stories of people, rather than as a destination as the space industry thinks of it. Therefore, the space industry needs to reach out beyond their own community, and communicate in language the public understands.
Robotics are playing a key role to replace space walks. The International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) is an example of a high level framework of International Collaboration. It is exciting seeing the next generation of students getting interested in space. He talked about NASA’s proposed asteroid redirect mission – an interesting challenge to position an asteroid around the moon; a forward-looking opportunity. We could potentially have a habitat and position in a retrograde, reusable orbit. This would help to understand vehicle design issues – and look at future capabilities.
Questions and Answers
At this point it was time for questions. I asked Bill about 3D printing, and how it would change NASA missions. He said it was a game changer, and likened 3D printing to a Star Trek teleporter. He says now NASA can create laser schedules for changing material strength. They are shipping a 3D printer into space. It will allow them to make their own tools up there.
Another question from the room: Are there things Canada should be doing to position ourselves for NASA’s proposed Asteroid mission? Bill mentioned Canada’s advanced knowledge of sensor technology, robotics, and help perhaps creating an inflatable bag to capture the asteroid – those could be interesting candidates for Canadian contributions to such a mission.
Another question was about whether NASA should be focusing more money on science, exploration, cutting edge technologies, while NASA contracts out cargo and transportation. His answer: Eventually there will be a private space station – but there is not a big market for heavy lift capability. Therefore NASA might still be in that market – if it’s unique. Where there’s a market NASA would try to use it. The Space Station is another example of something private companies wouldn’t have done by themselves. So there’s a likely period between 2020 and 2028 where private industries can explore private space.
A follow-up comment asked about private companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic moving into space – how does NASA remain relevant in that universe. Answer: We [NASA and private companies] need each other – suborbital flight is likely to be totally indendent of government involvement soon. However he doesn’t think private sector will be the only player in the deep space market – he thinks Government will still need to be involved in that. In fact to my understanding there is no private exploration of deep space so his point is well made.
Then there was a question about computer simulations playing a role in building space ships in the future. He clearly think computers play a role. But he is still an experimentalist – he wants to see the material coming out of the workshop.While 3D printing might change the equation, right now there is still a gap between what computers say can be done and the practical outcomes (for example, the time it takes to retool factories).
Overall it was a great keynote and very insightful presentation from a NASA insider. And the conference was off to a great start!