Henry Vanderbilt Retires From Running Space Access Conference

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Space Access Conference Announcement 1/8/17

It is with considerable reluctance and great regret that I announce my retirement from organizing and running Space Access conferences. This decision has been neither hasty, nor easy.

I’ve spent some time looking into alternate arrangements that could have allowed SA’17 to take place as expected, but none so far has panned out. So, there will not be a Space Access conference this April in Phoenix. There just isn’t time at this point. (More on that in a bit.)

As anyone who’s ever done so will tell you, organizing conferences involves some serious stress. That stress moreover tends to spike to extraordinary levels from a couple weeks out through that point late in a conference when it becomes reasonably certain that event-derailing disasters have held off another year.

I would not presume to equate this to field combat – nobody dies if a conference runner screws up – but there’s a reason why field combat leaders tend to be relatively young. After a certain age, working with that level of adrenaline starts changing from a lightning-multitasking creative buzz to something unpleasantly short of that, on its way to eventually becoming downright unhealthy.

I have been seeing that change these last few years. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve decided not to ignore it anymore. Middle age is that time of life when you can still do anything you ever did – only you’re starting to sometimes be smart enough not to. Running conferences at the level of quality and intensity I’ve insisted on over the years is a younger person’s game.

One thing that’s helped ease this decision: We’ve come light-years since the early days. The Space Access conferences are not as indispensable as they used to be. Our essential functions – getting the innovative end of this new industry together and exposing them to ideas, resources, and each other, plus bringing in new people and introducing them to this field and its huge potential – can be found elsewhere. Albeit, still not in one place in such a concentrated and affordable form.

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This is why SAS will now begin accepting proposals to organize and run the next Space Access conference. If someone (or ones) comes along and convinces us they both understand the overall conference goals and are willing and able to creatively accomplish these, we will advise, guide, and endorse them in organizing and running one.

We would expect this to be an iterative process, and any initial proposals a work in progress. That said, some broad guidelines (subject to change) to get you started:

The customary format of Space Access conferences – single-track, tightly scheduled, all day into the evening – is not carved in stone, though it evolved that way for reasons. But these reasons won’t necessarily all apply to your circumstances. Format variations are on the table (but should generally be for specific enunciatable reasons.) (Added note 1/9/17: Explicitly, neither Phoenix nor April are requirements.)

Proposals should cover the logistical basics: Where and when the conference will take place, how many people the venue will accommodate, where people will stay, where they’ll eat drink and mingle between and after sessions, how they’ll get back and forth during the conference, how they’ll travel to and from the conference, how all this will be kept affordable, how all this will be paid for. Don’t forget PA, A/V, tables, chairs, registration/badging, and keeping people fed, hydrated, and caffeinated.

Conference dates should respect likely schedule conflicts – with other related conferences, major family holidays, and student academic schedules, for starters. Other timing considerations may also apply. EG, hotel rates and function-space costs can vary widely with season depending on the locale, or university function space may be easier to arrange for during a break.

Breaking the conference-running tasks down and (to the extent practical in a preliminary proposal) having people ready to take them on is useful. Previous conference-running experience, space-related or otherwise, is a big plus.

Some discussion of who is to be invited, what they might talk about, and who will organize the program would be helpful. The overall focus of course should remain the technology, business, and politics of radically cheaper space transportation.

A major topical sub-theme for your conference is worth thinking about, but these can be hard to determine in advance. As often as not a topical sub-theme you never planned for emerges spontaneously from who agrees to come speak and what they want to talk about. FWIW, one traditional Space Access sub-theme is “stuff that’s not directly near-term related but that this audience finds really cool” – again, it can be hard to plan ahead on who might be available who’s moderately off-vector but really interesting.

Not losing money is good. Ditto not getting sued. Proposals should be clear on both strategies for avoiding these, and contingencies if they’re not avoided. Initial seed money from Space Access Society is a possibility. Surplus revenue to support other SAS work is good. Surplus revenue also going to support future activities of a group organizing the conference is not out of the question.

Finally: We will recruit such help in evaluating proposals as may from time to time seem useful. Proposals and related discussions will be kept private, but we reserve the right to use any good ideas submitted to enhance the conference. We may at our discretion introduce separate proposers whose approaches seem complementary and suggest they work together. We may also, given more than one promising proposal, suggest that whichever seems less far along be deferred a year. Our decisions on accepting, rejecting, or continuing to discuss a proposal are final, and we will discuss the considerations that went into such decisions only to whatever extent we feel this would enhance the conference.

Of course running a useful successful conference involves a whole lot more details than covered here so far, some minor, some not. As mentioned, this will be an iterative process. That’s it for now.

Preliminary proposals (and serious questions in support thereof) should be emailed to: space.access@mindspring.com, with “conference” in the subject line. There is no particular deadline. When and if we have an acceptable bid to organize the next Space Access conference, we’ll announce it, introduce the bidders, and hand that year’s baton off to them.

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In closing, I would like to thank everyone who has ever attended, presented at, or worked long hours helping me operate a Space Access – and especially in the early days, all those who’ve put up with my lapses of organization. Look around at how many of the ideas you heard (or had) first at a Space Access are now common wisdom, at how hugely more hopeful the space field is now versus thirty years ago. You helped accomplish that. Words cannot express my gratitude to you all.

Henry Vanderbilt
Executive Director
Space Access Society

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, another sign of the aging of the space advocate movement.

  • redneck

    Yes, while understandable it still makes me look at my own gray hairs. I doubt Henrys’ contribution to the newspace movement can be fully appreciated even by those of us that are aware that we have benefited from his work.

  • nathankoren

    I went to my first Space Access Society conference when I was 18. At the time, I was the youngest person there by perhaps three decades. Most of the men in the room were burnouts from the Apollo era. There were zero women. These were truly brilliant and inspiring people, but the sheer demographics gave little reason for hope.

    Since then things have gotten much better; I look at all the young people in the SpaceX control center and elsewhere and feel far more confident that we have a future. But honestly, not sure that any of it would have happened without Henry and the SAS: they kept the flame alive when just about nothing else did.

  • Jeff2Space

    I’ve never been to a Space Access Society conference in person, but I’ve lurked “online” long enough to know of the hard work that Henry Vanderbilt has poured into organizing them over the years. His contribution to the industry would be hard to measure, but is clearly quite significant.

    Thanks Henry for all your hard work through the years!

  • Douglas Messier

    The Space Access Conference is my favorite. Very informal. Unlike some other conferences I’ve attended, there’s a focus on substance over bullshit. (I’m looking at you, you know who you are.) Henry has done a great job putting them together over the years. I’m hopeful someone will step forward and continue them.