Phantastic Phun in Phoenix

I’m back in Sunnyvale after nearly four days in Phoenix. It took two hours to fly home with no time change, but it feels like I’ve gone back by about a month. I left Phoenix on a sunny spring day and arrived in San Jose in mid-winter. The Silicon Valley is at its chilly and soggy worst. Sunnyvale isn’t living up to its name. Nor is California living up to its reputation. Bad weather was never in any of the brochures I read about this place before moving here. I would sue the state for false advertising – but that would be pointless given that California is in worse financial shape than I am. The most I would get would be a 50 cents off coupon to Pinkberry. If that….

But, I digress.

The conference was generally upbeat this year, with most everyone excited about NASA’s new direction and the prospects for commercial space to grow rapidly in the coming years. The prospects for vast new multi-billion dollar space industries and vistas for exploration are tantalizing if Congress approves Barack Obama’s space plans and NASA – and the commercial space industry – can execute on them. How to do so was the main theme that ran through the three-day gathering.

There was only one major piece of news this year. Chuck Lauer announced Rocketplane Global’s intention to emerge from its finances-free hibernation to fly suborbital flights from Cecil Field in Florida. Money to build the company’s XP vehicle would be financed as part of the development of a theme park-style visitors center at the former naval air station. Lauer said he expects to be able to announce financing within weeks.

It’s a pretty interesting idea. Bring the spaceport to the tourists instead of the other way around. The flights become a high-end service around which other affordable attractions are built. As cool as Spaceport America may be, it is in the middle of the desert. If you’re paying $200,000 for a flight, you may not care. As prices drop, however, the wealthy might want to combine it with a vacation for the family. Why not Florida? Why not Orlando? An affordable vehicle with powered descent could conceivably operate from anywhere. It doesn’t have to land on its first and only attempt.

Lauer’s announcement was met with eye rolling and disbelief by some of the attendees, who privately questioned whether Rocketplane has the business and technological acumen to pull the project off. The company’s appetite has always exceeded its ability to find sufficient sustenance and execute on its priorities. Skeptics think that history will repeat itself. Time will tell.

My favorite speaker was Jane Poynter of Paragon SDC, who had driven up the highway from Tuscon to update everyone on the many diverse projects her company is working on. From new spacesuits and space station life support to lunar greenhouses, Paragon is positioning itself as the go-to supplier for both NewSpace and government agencies. It’s been one of those smaller companies that has flown largely under the radar.

It was not just what Paragon was doing but how Jane presented it. She described her projects in a loud, enthusiastic voice that contrasted sharply from the large group of mostly white male speakers who spoke in low engineering monotones. Commercial space…drone drone drone….funding….drone drone…billion dollar industry…drone drone drone..propellant depots….

I exaggerate…but not by much. And yes, I’m equally guilty of the same.

The funniest moment for me occurred not in a session but out by the swimming pool. There sitting on a table sat Tim Pickens’ laptop, upside down with all of its removable parts scattered around it. I immediately thought back to The Empire Strikes Back when Lando spots the mangled C-3PO, which had been blasted to pieces by Imperial Storm Troopers.

LANDO: Having trouble with you droid?

HAN: No. No problem. Why?

I used Lando’s line, hoping someone would respond with Han’s quip. No one did. It turns out that right before his presentation on Saturday, Tim had spilled an entire cup of coffee onto the laptop, which promptly shut down. As a result, Tim lost all of his slides and ended up giving off-the-cuff remarks. The last I heard, he was cautiously optimistic about the laptop’s prognosis.

Overall, it was a fun time in Phoenix. A special thanks to Henry Vanderbilt for organizing the conference. It’s a big effort, and he should be rightly pleased with the result. A special thanks for Henry for putting me on the World Space Panel with Clark Lindsey, Dave Salt and Henry Spencer. We tried our best to cover all the commercial things going on outside the U.S. in the forty minutes we had. I hope those who were there found it enlightening.

  • anon

    Rocketplane was promising to build a theme park at Burn’s Flats.
    Funny how they now denigrate Spaceport America when they were
    hyping essentially that concept 7 years ago.

    Anyone who invests in Rocketplane should expect only a glossy picture to put in their files.

  • Michael Antoniewicz II

    You needed this guy for the Seventh Inning Stretch 😉
    http://www.spacevidcast.com/2010/03/01/spaceup-ignite-talk-space-is-boring/