23 April 2012

Living Space: The 2012 National Space Symposium

I had the good fortune to attend the 28th annual National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs here in the US this week. I had been notionally aware of the Symposium before, just as one of those gatherings that occasionally resulted in a headline or two in Wired or Discover. But last September, I was having dinner with a friend who was going to the conference and he told me the types of companies and people who attended; so I looked into it as a possible target conference for the company for which I work. (We attend several conferences a year to find companies in the market for expert translation and localization services, and aerospace and aviation are prime verticals for us.) I decided to give it a shot this year and check it out, with an eye to perhaps being an exhibitor next year. Still to be determined how well the conference went in that respect, but for me personally, it was a lot of fun.

Speakers for the week included NASA chief Charles Bolden, Dr. Amy Mainzer, Bill Nye (The Science Guy), P.J. O'Rourke, Dr. Lisa Randall, the head of US Space Command General William Shelton, Mark Stevenson, and Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Some of the highlights from the conference:

The panel discussion with physicists Drs. Mainzer and Randall and Bill Nye 'the Science guy' was interesting up to a point, in the way that any discussion panel with three such distinguished people would be. I wouldn't say much new was said, though. The importance of space exploration and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education was the centerpiece, but did this audience need to hear that? This was a continuing issue I had throughout the conference: too much preaching to the choir, and not nearly enough discussion of how we can do a better job of convincing the uncoverted.

In the follow-up Q&A session after the panel, mine was the first question posed. (Audience members texted questions to the moderator at a number displayed overhead; the moderator then posed them to the panel.)* My question was, quoting verbatim from the sent message, "Are dark energy and dark matter really 'discoveries' or just conclusions we must draw to keep the Einsteinian universe from (figuratively) collapsing? What if the problem is with Einstein?" The question was aimed primarily at Dr. Randall, since this is her area of expertise. She took the question with good grace, and essentially restated the case for these two concepts, though I didn't feel she addressed the true underlying issue I was trying to raise, i.e., is Einstein's universe necessarily the one that all the data point to, or are there some serious gaps which we are trying to fill with theories we can't directly test? I sometimes wonder if, in the tradition of Thomas Khun's theory of scientific progress, the Einsteinian universe isn't on the verge of collapsing under the weight of all the workarounds and bandages scientists seem to keep feeling obliged to add to it to keep it standing. Coincidentally, in the few days following this panel, I read two more articles that supported my doubts. You can read them here and here. A couple of weeks later, we also saw interesting possibilities about dark matter pop up here and here.

The talks by NASA chief Charles Bolden and head of US Space Command Gen. William Shelton were two of the speeches to which I had been most looking forward. It was therefore a huge letdown when both gave decidedly underwhelming talks. The general's was by far the worst speech of the whole conference. Instead of exhorting the crowd to get excited about space exploration and funding and enlisting their help to improve STEM education, he basically seemed to be delivering an annual financial report. In a speech full of acronyms that only people who didn't need this information would understand, he delivered dry recitations of financial goals and challenges. Imagine hearing someone read from a company's annual report for 45 minutes. NASA head Bolden's speech followed immediately thereafter, so the bar was set quite low. Even still, it failed to inspire. I was discussing the talks afterwards with a friend and we both wondered about the chicken-and-egg of this situation: does such marked lack of inspiration and excitement come from folks being demoralized by falling budgets, or does America's lack of inspired leadership in this area contribute to the dwindling resources dedicated to this field?

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson's opening speech on Tuesday was far more stirring. He is a passionate, eloquent champion of STEM education and space exploration. I wish America had fifty more people like him out there every day, pushing for more NASA funding (which Dr. Tyson feels should be doubled to 1% of our budget from the current .5%) and advancing a STEM education agenda. My only beef with Dr. Tyson is that he is very tone-deaf to any model of space exploration that doesn't follow the traditional NASA- and US-led model. This was underscored when he was given my question at the end of the session. I asked, "Which country/countries will arrive first on Mars and will it be a public or private venture?" So firm is his assumption that any such mission must be American and must be entirely publicly funded, that he didn't even address the question at all, instead veering off onto a tangent about American middle-schoolers being groomed from that age to be astronauts to Mars. Still, the details of his own positions matter less than his important and effective advocacy, so I won't begrudge him his obduracy on these points. Still, as attested by the strong presence of SpaceX at the conference and that company's upcoming, highly symbolic docking with the ISS, as well as by this week's big announcement about private asteroid mining missions, people need to get used to the fact that it's as likely to be company logos as nation-state flags that fly on some of the most exciting voyages of the future. The sooner the 'old-schoolers' like Dr. Tyson get used to this, the better.

P.J. O'Rourke was the master of ceremonies for the corporate partnership dinner, and he was, as always, very engaging and funny. (Prior to this conference, I didn't even realize he was such a dedicated space advocate. He actually sits on the board of the Space Foundation.) I do not agree with Mr. O'Rourke's politics, but he is one of those rare Republicans these days who manages to disagree without vitriol and condescension. I had the chance to speak with him for a few minutes at his book-signing and found him to be quite a down-to-Earth**, approachable man. We talked about oil subsidies and oil price manipulation, as well as corporate taxation. I was surprised to find that we agreed on more issues than not, though that is perhaps just due to the coincidence that we happened to be discussing topics on which I have unusual views for a liberal, e.g. corporate taxation and Obama's meaningless posturing on the oil price issue.

Saving the best for last (both in its appearance here and on the symposium program), Mark Stevenson's speech at the closing dinner Thursday night was the highlight of the entire event. THIS was the kind of inspiration and unbridled optimism I had hoped to get from all the major speakers during the conference. Mr. Stevenson's theme was reasoned, dedicated optimism, much in line with a piece he wrote here and in the same vein as his book, An Optimist's Tour of the Future (which I strongly recommended last year). Mr. Stevenson really lit a fire under the audience and pushed them to look towards the future with more optimism. I just wish he had spoken at the opening ceremony instead. It might have inspired the space leaders in attendance to be bolder in the visions they laid out over the following days.

*Ironically, the moderator said my question showed what an 'intelligent and technically astute audience we have here today.' I say it's ironic because I was probably the least technical person in the entire room, given my liberal arts background and given that many (most?) other attendees were scientists and engineers.

**Irony of this choice of words duly noted.

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