It’s been around 10 years since I last attended a conference for the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the professional association for aerospace engineers. I attended the AIAA Space 2018 Forum this week, and it felt like a different experience from when I was a NASA contractor 2006-2012. I also wasn’t attending as a reporter or for a job, just Bart Leahy, AIAA Member and interested space geek. Part of that could be my age, part of it was a reflection of what’s happening in the space business now. Exciting times to be in the business or just observing it as an interested member of the public. What follows are some of my notes from the various sessions for your reference.
NASA at 60
The three-day conference kicked off with a panel featuring a keynote speech by new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
This was my first time hearing/seeing Bridenstine in person. Cornell MBA, former Navy fighter pilot, and former member of Congress…oh, and he was born in 1975, which is making me feel rather old and quite the slacker. He spent most of his time giving a retrospective on NASA’s history before touting the latest NASA human spaceflight project, which is the Lunar Gateway.
The Gateway will be a robotically tended space station that will orbit near the Moon and will be occupied by human crews for maybe 30-90 days at a time, depending on the mission. The idea behind the Gateway would be to provide a close-in location for operating, deploying, or collecting hardware from the lunar surface. It would also provide a mission/destination for NASA’s super-heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. I used to write for the SLS Program Manager, and I’m sympathetic to NASA’s need to have a human mission beyond Earth orbit. However, I’m more or less in agreement with Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin on the Gateway, who likened it to a “toll booth” in a recent editorial. Why not just build a lander and go to the Moon rather than spend all that time orbiting it? I heard some better arguments for it on Wednesday, but on Monday I had a couple hallway conversations with Zubrin about Gateway, and his objections made sense to me.
After Bridenstine finished his talk, it was time for a Q&A panel featuring every single Administrator from Bridenstine all the way back to Richard Truly, who served under George H.W. Bush. Historian Roger Launius moderated the discussion. To me, the most interesting question these former NASA leaders answered was regarding the biggest challenge they faced when they first started their tenure. It was like hearing a first-hand account of the last 30 years of spaceflight. Dan Goldin and Mike Griffin impressed me the most because they seemed to “speak space” better than the rest (they were engineers, after all). One thing seemed clear from Griffin onward: the political partisanship makes the Administrator’s job a lot more challenging, which is a shame because one would like to think that space exploration would be one of the few “nonpartisan” things elected officials in Washington could agree upon. Still, one must also recall that the International Space Station came within one vote of being canceled in the early 1990s, so perhaps our memories of “bipartisanship” are a little hazy with nostalgia.
I spoke with a fellow space writer and he suggested that Mr. Launius was a bit too polite: he would have liked to see him ask Bridenstine, “We’ve had the Space Exploration Initiative, the Vision for Space Exploration, and other big programs that were proposed, started, and canceled. What makes you think your program will be any different?”
Otherwise, most of the former Administrators were very focused on practical matters, like technology development and U.S. political leadership. Goldin, however, flavored his American leadership message with some thoughts about becoming a spacefaring civilization capable of seeing worlds beyond this solar system. Otherwise, there wasn’t a lot of “visionary” talk.
The rest of the day was taken up by shorter sessions. Among the talks I attended were:
- Space Launch System: Exceptional Opportunities for Secondary Payloads to Deep Space, delivered by one of my former customers, Dr. Kimberly Robinson. She was promoting SLS’s ability to support up to 17 smaller payloads in one of its segments after launching Orion. There are 13 “cubesat” payloads scheduled to go along for the ride on Exploration Mission One (EM-1), now scheduled for late 2019, but more likely to happen in mid-2020.
- New Moon Explorer (NME) Robotic Precursor Mission Concept. One of the co-authors of the paper was Les Johnson, another friend and former customer. Les wasn’t there, but the content of the presentation shouldn’t have surprised me: it included a “12U” sized cubesat, which would use four extendable composite booms to deploy a 200-square-meter (2,152-square-foot) solar sail. The solar sail-driven spacecraft would travel to the asteroid 2016 H03. Les is eager to advance the development of solar sails (using the momentum of photons from the Sun) to push vehicles through–and eventually beyond–the solar system. Make the sail large enough and thin/light enough, and it’s possible!
- Complex System Evolution – Balancing Technical, Political, and Environmental Factors for Success. This panel included a bunch of folks I did not know and one I did know: yet another former customer, Robert Lightfoot, former Marshall Space Flight Center Director and Acting Administrator for NASA prior to the confirmation of Bridenstine. The panel had a rather dry title, but once the participants got to talking, what they were discussing was pretty wild. As systems become more and more complex, incorporating diverse components, subsystems, systems, and systems-of-systems, it becomes more difficult to anticipate how they will behave. A typical example would be ballistic missile defense, which includes Army, Navy, and Air Force elements; ground-, sea-, air-, and space-based assets; and computers and weapons made by a bewildering number of contractors and subcontractors. One would like to think that you could just see a target on a radar, push the right button, and the proper weapon would rise up to knock out the offending intruder. However, as systems become more complex, that is not necessarily so. The panel members, which also included individuals from Raytheon and Sierra Nevada Corporation, were asked to share some of their “war stories” and asked about what could be done to make integrating these massive new systems work better in the future. Robert addressed an environment often overlooked in the engineering world: the political. “You have to keep them happy or you’re not going anywhere.” However, the phrase that jumped out at me from the discussion was the potential for “emergent behavior” in complex systems that incorporate things like machine learning and quantum computing. Skynet, anyone?
- A Novel Mars Rover Concept for Astronaut Operational Support on Surface EVA Missions. This appeared to be a student design project, testing ideas for a future Mars rover capable of supporting multiple activities. The machine was treated more as a tool than a robot, as it was designed to help astronauts do more on Martian surface. As a result it had less automation than some of the rovers up there now. It would’ve been neat to see some video of the machine actually interacting with a simulated environment, but perhaps that’s for the future.
- Mars Design Reference Architecture Modifications: Payload Trades and Early Return Options. This sounded more interesting than it turned out to be. Whenever a space geek hears the word “architecture,” they usually expect to see a wide range of hardware for getting to and around Mars: spacecraft, landers, habitats, rovers, etc. Instead, the speaker focused on a proposed new type of orbit that was designed to reduce fuel consumption and increase time on the surface, no hardware to speak of. Fine, I suppose, but then title it something else. A much smaller audience is interested in orbits. Perhaps he knew that.
- Aside from the opening plenary with the NASA Administrators, the biggest crowd appeared for the evening lecture titled “Exoplanets and the Search for Habitable Worlds.” This is where I saw, by far, the most people under 30 except for the “Speed Mentoring” activity on Tuesday. We were treated to a talk about the detection of worlds outside our solar system by Andrew Howard from CalTech and Sara Seager from MIT–two authorities on this field that was all theoretical until the 1990s. Howard provided an overview of how exoplanets are detected while Seager concentrated on the tools we will use in the future (flying now or proposed) to find Earth-like worlds around other stars. A lot of the data charts soared over my head, but a couple quotes stuck out:
- “Nature doesn’t make Neptune-sized rocks.”
- “Water vapor is our biggest greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide and methane are more human-produced, so you hear more about them. Water vapor is just there already.”
- “In exoplanets we have more questions than answers.”
I took some time away from the technical sessions to speak with a space communicator I respect. She took some time out of her busy schedule to help me do some creative thinking about my future career options. I’ve been freelancing for almost five years now, and it might be good to develop some sort of career development or growth program so I’m not just bouncing from client to client for the next 20 years.
The biggest challenge I’m facing is that while I might have a lot of writing skills, “dynamic,” catchy sales & marketing writing is not one of them. As a result, I find work primarily as a contractor, developing internal documents that clients direct me to do. I haven’t been able to identify the sorts of skills/activities that would make me a good consultant, where I tell others what or how to do something. Anyhow, I got some good advice and took some actions while I was at the conference, so that was time well spent.
I’ll take a look at the Tuesday and Wednesday events when I find the time. If this is the sort of thing you like, you’re about to get more.