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Space Watch

Pick your Space Industry Sitcom Approach

This month's Second View is by Space Foundation Director - Research & Analysis Micah Walter-Range.

This is going to be a difficult article to write. After years of telling computers not to autocorrect "satcom," to my eyes the word "sitcom" looks like an error. Such is the hazard of working in a jargon-heavy industry...

While taking a couple days of R&R after the hustle and bustle of the 30th Space Symposium, I bowed to Netflix's omniscient recommendations engine and spent a few hours watching a few episodes from two television series representing one of this country's finest cultural products -- sitcoms about New Yorkers whose lifestyles are inexplicably luxurious and carefree. The shows had essentially the same cast of five characters (a married couple, an in-a-relationship couple, and a confirmed bachelor), but the overall feeling of each series was dramatically different. One sitcom was the standard string of predictable one-off jokes and improbable scenarios. The other sitcom was even more absurd, but it contained an overarching storyline that promised the viewer that each episode, no matter how ridiculous, was a step along the way to something bigger that would ultimately be worth the wait. This was a much more engaging approach, and the ratings for each show demonstrated that viewers enjoyed feeling as though they were a part of a sweeping narrative.

What does any of this have to do with space? Despite the occasional introduction of a new character or the periodic removal of an old one, the cast of the space community is fairly constant from year to year. I'm sure most of us could name candidate companies or programs for the role of an old stodgy character, an idealistic and possibly naïve upstart, a "frequent merger," and so on. The question that faces us is whether we are playing our roles for short-term laughs or to tell a meaningful long-term story. We can choose to bicker amongst ourselves over smaller government budgets and increasingly competitive commercial markets, or we can work together to present policymakers and the public with a vision that they will support because they want to see how the story plays out.

Based on the data I saw while working on The Space Report (2014 edition now available here) and my experiences at the Space Symposium, it is clear that many parts of the space industry have a renewed sense of momentum and purpose. In response to the ambitious story we are sharing with the public, we are seeing higher levels of engagement from industries and individuals who would not have participated in the past. The space economy as a whole continues to grow, surpassing $314 billion in 2013, generating funds and attracting outside investment for the development of new capabilities in space. Five countries successfully conducted maiden flights of new rocket designs, one of which was the very first South Korean rocket to reach orbit. There was a huge uptick in the number of satellites launched, due to a profusion of microsatellites (each weighing less than 200 pounds), which constituted more than half of the 197 satellites launched in 2013. Many of these satellites were technology demonstrators or test beds that are helping us figure out what the next generation of satellite services may be able to do. The applications derived from such satellites are becoming increasingly tailored to the needs of customers, making the benefits of space increasingly tangible to a wider audience.

The Space Symposium in general can be an eye-opening window into the future of the industry, and it is where many of the deals defining that future are struck. You can read more about the Symposium elsewhere in this newsletter, but I would like to highlight two program elements that make me particularly hopeful for the future: the Technical Track and the New Generation Space Leaders Program.

The Technical Track was a new addition to the program, featuring invited speakers as well as presentations selected from a large number of submissions we received earlier in the year. In some ways these presentations mirrored the content of The Space Report, with sessions ranging from technical discussion of smallsats and distributed architectures to larger considerations of the evolving relationship between government and industry. I would urge you to take a look at the papers submitted by the presenters, which are linked from the agenda page here. Viewed as a group, it is easy to see the creativity and innovation that are at the heart of the industry, enabling us to tell the public a more compelling story. This sitcom will have plenty of material for years to come.

The New Gen program continues to grow and offer more programming and professional development opportunities to space professionals under the age of 35. It is inspiring to watch the eagerness with which they engage with experienced mentors and speakers, and to listen to the discussions that continue long after each event. Even the social events reflect this vitality -- our first-ever SpaceSLAM (imagine a space-oriented poetry slam hosted by Bill Nye) resulted in people singing and rapping about space, delivering an updated version of Kennedy's Moon speech, and conducting entrepreneurial pitches for crowdfunded space projects. These young people know a good narrative when they hear one, and they are eager to be a part of the next episode.

If the space industry is like a sitcom, it is one that is going somewhere amazing. Companies and governments around the world know it, technology developers know it, and most importantly, the New Generation Space Leaders know it. Be sure to stay tuned in -- it is going to be an exciting show.

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