Pathways to Collaboration
Welcome and Moderator:
Executive Vice President,
Chairman of the Board,
Space Frontier Foundation
Vice President, Space Systems,
Sierra Nevada Corporation
Vice President, Special Projects,
Deputy Chair, Policy Committee,
National Space Society
Founder and Chief Executive Officer,
BRC Imagination Arts
Newseum, Washington, D.C.
Date: Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Federal News Service
DAMON WILSON: Welcome back. I’m Damon Wilson again, the executive vice president at the Atlantic Council. Thank you for joining the conversation, back in our second session here today. I just want to remind those of you who are following our conversation online, again, our hashtag is #renewingspace, so please join the conversation there.
This morning, in this morning’s session, we want to try to build on the conversation that we had about the future of human space exploration. This session will focus on pathways to collaboration and essentially, as part of that, how to assess the idea of commercial and international collaboration and how that fits into the – into the narrative, in the story. Is this the new normal or not?
Essentially, our whole conversation today is premised on a report. It’s premised on the NRC report, and I think what we’re trying to draw out here is to animate that conversation, to animate that report to really try to see if we can forge a viable way forward.
We’ve got four terrific discussants with us today. Jeff Feige we have with us, who is the chairman of the board of the Space Frontier Foundation and the CEO of Orbital Outfitters. John Olson, who is the vice president of space systems at Sierra Nevada Corporations, splitting his time between Colorado and Washington, a former assistant director of space and aeronautics at the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House.
William Pomerantz is with us. He’s the vice president of special projects with Virgin Galactic and a former manager of the Google Lunar X Prize, at the X Prize Foundation. And finally we have with us Dale Skran, the deputy chair of the policy committee at the National Space Society.
We’re going to focus on the issues of international and commercial collaboration, but I want to start with building on the conversation we heard a little bit this morning and go back to first principles and ask our colleagues why is this story of human space flight even compelling? Why do we need to actually be having this conversation about a sustainable way forward?
So Will, let me toss that to you first to get the conversation started, please.
WILLIAM POMERANTZ: Yeah. Well, I think – I flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., yesterday. If I had asked all of the people on my flight why they bothered to come to Washington, D.C., I presumably would not have gotten one monolithic answer. Everyone would have said for different reasons. I came because it’s actually nice weather in Washington for a change; I came because I want to work on a campaign; I came because I’m speaking at an event; I came for whatever reason.
You know, space is a – is a lot bigger and more diverse place than even a city as wonderful as Washington, D.C., so why should we imagine that there is a single answer? I personally, myself, have a hundred different reasons why I want to go to space and why I spend my time and my money going to space, and if you ask me tomorrow, I’ll probably have a slightly different list of why things go to space.
So I think we have in this community gotten a bit navel-gazing, in that we always are trying to recreate that John F. Kennedy moment and sum up everything about why we go to space in a tweet or in one Instagram photo, which I just don’t think is possible. We don’t need one monolithic program, because there isn’t one monolithic reason to go.
MR. WILSON: Thank you for that. So is that – is that – does that hold this together? I mean, why is this compelling?
You took your career from the policy world to the private sector, so let me punt the question to you, John. Why is this compelling in the first place? Why do we need to be having this debate?
JOHN OLSON: Well, I think it’s absolutely central to everything that we are a part of as Americans and as human beings. I think if you look at our country, we’re a technology-based society, and the economy and our national security is based on that. And I think space is an exemplar of that applied technology for the benefit of humankind.
And I think as we look – as we look at even our society, as we look at children, what are the three common things that every child loves? LEGOs, dinosaurs and space, right? So it’s inculcated from the very beginning. And I think – you know, when I was at NASA, I don’t think there was ever a time when I – when I flew across the country and sat next to someone and they said, hey, what do you do? Well, I work for NASA. Oh, wow! Really? Tell me about that!
So I think it’s part of our – part of our innate cultural dynamic, but I think more importantly, I think the real intangible benefits, as well as the esoteric and the sublime are absolutely compelling. And as Will said, it’s not one thing; it’s all of them combined. And I think it is an essential element of our society.
And right now is a pivotal point in history. I do believe that we’re finally breaking out and bringing space to more people, adding greater benefit, bringing the cosmos into Earth’s economic sphere. We’re about ready to have a commercial renaissance of space flight access, affordability, sustainability, where it’ll bring real and tangible benefits to every single person here on Earth, as well as expand our imagination beyond where we’ve ever even thought of.
MR. WILSON: Terrific. Thank you. That sounds like you’ve got a convincing case. But let me ask – let me ask you, Jeff. Why is this – how did this actually become your career, first? Why was this compelling for you personally, and would you agree that now, at this particular point, we are at a pivotal, compelling moment?
JEFF FEIGE: Well, you catch me off guard there, asking about me. I was so ready to echo their comments.
MR. WILSON: Mixing it up here.
MR. FEIGE: Let me reverse it, and hopefully I can sort how I want to – want to answer about myself.
But to start from the very beginning and speaking from a Foundation perspective, first, I would echo the comments of both the previous speakers. But I’d go just one step farther, which is that we’re an organization that looks to humanity’s future in space. And I think this would echo sort of my own thoughts as well, which is that if we are not going to space as a place to work, live and stay, then it’s not a compelling destination.
If we’re only going to do some robotic science and – but my other favorite phrase often is so we can send a handful of government employees who are better than you – that’s just not appealing. It’s not the answer.
And when – you know, I was listening to the previous speaker. They were talking about how many students are excited for space, and I can speak to that for the Space Frontier Foundation. We turn away students because they are volunteering by the tens and now the hundreds. They weren’t doing that five years ago.
And what has changed – what has changed is the work of companies like Virgin and Sierra Nevada. And it’s the commercial side. It’s the fact that you yourself could actually get – to get involved. It’s not something you see on the TV anymore; it’s something that, if you make your career about this, that you could get involved. And I think, for myself, that was the answer. And the reason I’m actually working in the part of the industry that I’m working in is also important. If I was an engineer at a prime contractor or I was just working for NASA or I was, you know, somehow working within sort of the traditional system, then for me, at least – and I suspect for some of my colleagues – I’m not sure how much appeal this field has.
What’s changing now, and why we’re at the most dynamic point in, I believe, our nation’s history in terms of space since the Apollo days, now is the most dynamic time. And the reason for that is because this is the time when normal people are finally getting to interact with space and it’s suddenly becoming a thing you can touch.
The reason Virgin’s exciting, the reason Sierra Nevada’s exciting, the reason SpaceX is exciting, because the path where they end is me going. And not necessarily me as an individual, although, fingers crossed. But really, it’s normal, everyday people.
MR. WILSON: So Dale, pick up on that. Would you agree with that? Is this – is the idea of human space exploration actually more compelling now because of the potential individual empowerment, the decentralization of who can actually play?
DALE SKRAN: Well, I completely agree with Jeff, and I think the National Space Society believes that as well. This is an extraordinary time. I actually took a few years – well, like a decade or so – off to do some start-ups, and when I got reinvolved in space activism about five years ago, I was just astounded at everything that was happening with great companies like the people we have on stage here. This is truly a new world of private space development.
If anything, I think, unfortunately, in the NRC report they basically dismissed this as saying it’s speculative. It is speculative in the sense that any high-risk enterprise is speculative, but we have for the first time a real entrepreneurial ecosystem. We have companies – not just the sort of traditional companies like Virgin and so on, but we have a whole new group of companies like Planet Labs, which Hannah was on. And there’s about 10 or 15 other companies, including Made in Space, who’re doing extremely exciting things. These are small companies with 10, 15, 20 employees.
Made in Space I’m very familiar with because their director of engineering is the assistant secretary of the National Space Society. It’s literally 15 people. They’ve taken a 3-D printer; they’re flying it to the space station. They made it work in zero G. They’ve tested it on the Vomit Comet – extraordinary project for 15 or 20 young people to be working on, moving at light speed.
MR. WILSON: So we’re here in Washington, where the big debate and the debates in Congress were over NASA’s budget, the future of the space program, very much from NASA’s perspective. You all have worked on – there was – some of you worked directly on policy. Many of you are now connected to the industry side of this. How do you see the future of space paying out in terms of where the government is, where 10, 15 people in a room doing 3-D printing is?
When you sat – maybe come back to you, John – when you sat in OSDP at the White House, remind me what years – when were you – when were you here in Washington for —
MR. OLSON: I left in 2013.
MR. WILSON: OK. OK, so relatively recently, right? Relatively recently. But you – if you jump back further, is this a dramatic change in the – sort of the paradigm of thinking about who’s going where, who’s playing the leading role here?
MR. OLSON: I would say yes and no. Essentially the National Space Policy of 2010 outlines a robust U.S. domestic industrial base, base industrial base that motivates assured access to space. It also calls for enhanced international and industry collaboration.
So I think, at its very essential nucleus, that the National Space Policy, which embodies many principles that are – that are evolved, really does an excellent job at stimulating or acting to catalyze this then-nascent, now much more growing and vibrant industry. So I think from a policy perspective, I think the goals and objectives are there.
And personally, for me, seeing that we had these fundamental building blocks – and as Jeff Bingham would also say, as we marry that with the legislative side, as we look at the appropriations and the authorization as well as the national and executive policy direction – when those are harmonious and aligned and in unison, the absolute result is phenomenal.
So that I think has been a helpful base plane, but then from there, we now have in the industry sector and across the international community and across academia and the institutions, I think there’s an absolute fire and absolute energy to say, you know what? The factors are now aligned to bring this to fruition. We’ve had some starts and stops, but now we’re over that – we’re over that chasm. It’s now not exponential growth; it’s near vertical.
And so I think it truly is, to echo the statement, an exciting time, and yet you must have that policy environment. And we still have so much to do, to enable, in terms of property rights, in terms of traffic and control and all the international laws and treaties and all the challenges. So it’s a beautifully right time, not just for scientists and engineers, but for lawyers and doctors and builders and makers and believers, but also people who want to make money, who want to chase science, who want to solve engineering challenges. So it’s something for everyone, and it’s truly inclusive, and the time is now.
MR. WILSON: So let me ask Will to sort of flesh this out on the public sector-private sector side. Obviously, with your company at the leading edge of this, how does a policy environment impact you? How much internally within Virgin Galactic are you developing your strategies and animating your work based on where authorizing legislation is on Capitol Hill, NASA’s budget is and what the policy environment is, coming out of OSDP?
MR. POMERANTZ: Yeah, great question. One thing that I’ve learned particularly over the last four or five years is that the term commercial is not a binary term. There’s a whole spectrum of how commercial different companies can be. And I would say, Virgin Galactic, we’re pretty far to one end of that spectrum. We might be about the farthest out there, in that we haven’t taken any, really, government R&D money up front. But even us, even at Virgin Galactic, even we have NASA as a customer of ours, as a really important customer of ours.
NASA has already chartered a full flight of SpaceShipTwo, and hopefully we’ll be chartering additional ones in the future. Because they recognize that this capacity that we have entirely privately developed is of use to NASA. It’s a capacity they didn’t already have in house, that would have been much more expensive to develop in-house than to just buy a ticket from us at the going rate that’s listed on our website that anyone else can buy.
So for us, we get to be – it’s sort of nice at times; we get to stay out of the fray on specific battles about should this booster have four segments or five segments, and what particular contractual mechanism should we use for this contract or that contract? Because we aren’t going to compete for those contracts, and we ultimately don’t care.
But we very much care about NASA being a healthy, thriving organization and about it being an organization that recognizes there are a huge number of internal advocates within the agency who have been there for years who are really excited about what’s happening at these commercial companies and see the opportunity to allow it – to have those commercial companies allow NASA to do what it’s always done better, faster, more effectively, more affordably.
MR. WILSON: And Jeff, from the perspective of Orbital Outfitters again. How does the – your private-sector hat actually get shaped and determined by what’s happening out at the policy world here?
MR. FEIGE: I think you need to start by echoing Will’s comments, to some extent. But where I would sort of add in is, I guess – I think John mentioned this as well – the regulatory side. How is the entire push of all of the functions of government, not just NASA, spending money, but how they’re regulating launches, how they’re regulating infrastructure, how they’re regulating safety – all of those kind of things, where do they drive you?
And if there isn’t a national policy that’s focused on making sure that those things don’t become barriers to entry, then we finally – you know, we have an industry that’s always just been about taking money out of the government, that’s finally using large amounts of private money and actually moving towards being a private industry in its own right. But you could stifle that entire thing from an improper regulatory approach.
And having at the policy level that sort of thing focused – it’s something that I’m involved in or worried about on a daily basis. It was – frankly, it was my job a decade ago, before I ever – before either of these current positions were sort of a glint in my eye. And so I’m both intimate with them, always concerned with them and still engaged with them. You don’t ever get to walk away on that. I think that’s where I’d focus it.
But to the extent – you know, when we think about the, sort of the big fight of the day of, is this NASA program or that NASA program going to go ahead? For my company, I can say that, you know, we don’t really care. And I know that’s kind of where Will is as well, and you know what? That is the most freeing thing in the whole world. (Laughter.)
MR. WILSON: So Dale, what do you – what do you make of that? You know, a private sector that is – might be a little bit ambivalent even, about the regulatory policy world? How have you seen the role of private sector —
MR. SKRAN: Well, we’re not ambivalent about regulatory. We’re ambivalent about NASA funding —
MR. WILSON: Got it. Right. I got it. So Dale, over the course of your career, have you seen this evolution in terms of the role the private sector’s playing in here? Just come at it from —
MR. SKRAN: Well, let me try to address that. You know, in the earlier panel there was a lot of discussion about sustainability, and it was defined in a variety of ways. I think, unfortunately, it’s often defined to be budgetary stability for NASA, is what they really are talking about. I have always had a completely different vision of sustainability of a space program, which is that it not really matter that much what the NASA budget is.
So obviously, I applaud the idea that I’m sitting between two people – in fact, it’s really an amazing experience – I’m going to sound like an enthusiast, but I am an enthusiast – to be sitting between Orbital Outfitters and Virgin Galactic, two companies who are probably the least dependent on the NASA budget – there are probably others who could claim that, but they’re certainly leaders in not depending on the NASA budget. And that is our future in space.
The future in space that is truly sustainable is one that does not primarily depend on government budgets. And now I’m talking in terms of humans, and I do have a little speech here, if you’ll forgive me.
As Dr. Pace said on the previous panel, we already have a sustainable space program for robots. In fact, if the robots we use in space – the GPS satellites, the weather satellites and so on and so on – were all shut down tomorrow, our modern society would stop. My daughter would be coming out of her bedroom asking why her phone doesn’t work, OK? And I live in New Jersey. My life would be at risk from the next hurricane that bears down on our shores, for which, thankfully – thanks to weather satellites, we had perfect warning of where Sandy was going to hit – a giant arrow pointed right at my house. But, you know, it was – it was definitely very helpful.
But with human space flight, we’re not yet at that point. And as the SEDS representative said on the previous panel, the only goal that’s truly sustainable is the goal of human settlement of space. All other human goals in space are simply not sustainable.
I’m going to say one more thing. Eventually – I’m a – I work in the electronics area. My current research involves developing human capable image recognition. You look at Google driverless cars, you look at curiosity on Mars; by the time the NRC report has people on Mars, the goal of putting humans on Mars to explore will seem foolish. It will be completely obvious —
MR. WILSON: Say that one more time. Repeat that.
MR. SKRAN: It will seem foolish, because it will be completely obvious that robots could do the job much better. Because you will be driving to see the launch in a driverless car that talks to you like a person, and it will be completely obvious we don’t need to send people to Mars to explore.
But it will not meet the need of human survival and settlement in space. That’s the only sustainable reason for humans to be in space.
MR. WILSON: So let me just extract that for a second, and just ask your colleagues. Do you agree with that statement? Maybe John?
MR. OLSON: In its basic principle, I do believe strongly in human exploration and development and ultimately settlement of space. It’s a challenging task, but absolutely I think that’s been a driver personally and professionally for me throughout my lifetime.
However, I think there’s a tremendous amount of synergy between the human and the robotic exploration, between the science and the exploration, between the rationale for doing so. so I don’t think – I don’t think there’s any one particular dominant driver, but I think collectively that’s absolutely true.
And as far as human space flight exploration, we’ve been – we’ve been studying that this – as we talked about the report, the most recent NRC report, there’s also been 24 blue-ribbon – presidential blue-ribbon panels since 1968. And in a review of those, the common thread is that 85 percent of the content is about the same. And we keep relearning and rediscovering and reaffirming the principles, the rationale, the pathways, the approaches. And what’s amazing is that commonality.
But applying that, we’re now at the point where we say, you know what? We’re – it’s not Groundhog Day one more time. We are going to – we’re going to change the equation by adding a much broader stakeholder base, a much broader set of engagees and participants. And that can be virtual; that can be real.
But I do agree ultimately, bringing it back to the very question, is that human presence in space, from my perspective, is an absolutely essential element for long-term sustainability there.
MR. WILSON: Let me just follow up real quick, in this reference to all the reports and their groping around and the 80 percent commonality. Do you think we’re – does the NRC latest pathways report help lay out where you could see a viable political consensus on the way forward, of where policy is going?
MR. OLSON: By definition, sure. Absolutely, yes, it does. It is – is it the sole path? No, it is not. I think it’s a very useful work. Having had a hand in setting it up while I was at NASA prior to going to the White House, I absolutely believe in it.
I think it’s a little late, when we look at the timing of it. It is late to need when we’ve had some extraordinary changes and some contractual activities and we’ve progressed. So I think it’s still relevant, but, you know, is it – is it working at the speed of need? Did it arrive in time? Perhaps not, being a – being a 2014 report.
However, that does not – that does not at all dilute or diminish the value of it. It reinforces many of the principles that have already been outlined. But I think it actually goes further, and it talks about the fiscal and the economic realities, and those are – those are structural drivers. So I think, in looking at the – in looking at the pathways layout, I would say – I would have even gone a little bit more boldly into being more assertive than it was.
But as an NRC member, I know that oftentimes you have to – you have to manage with a certain approach. So I think it’s – I think it’s a good report in that respect.
MR. WILSON: So that sounds like someone who’s familiar with the difficult policy world. But let me come back to Jeff and Will.
If you’re ambivalent a little bit about maybe NASA’s budget, not the regulatory framework, what is your vision for the role that companies like yours versus NASA would play, not in human space exploration, but in this quest for human settlement?
MR. FEIGE: The role of NASA – OK, a subcomponent of that broad goal of settlement necessarily has to be exploration. NASA’s job is exploration. The trick is that they need to be exploring and executing their exploration agenda in a way that doesn’t stand in the way or limit the opportunities of what is sort of emerging as a private sector.
And, you know, the phrase that we’ve sort of always liked to use within the Foundation is there’s a Lewis and Clark function. There is very little reason for commercial companies to be doing anything sort of beyond the – and I’m sure I can always find an exception to this rule, but sort of beyond the moon, Mars, asteroid belt sort of, you know, describing that area as sort of one part of space.
I don’t think I’ve heard almost any commercial companies proposing – I mean, there are a handful of little things here and there, but none of us in the commercial world are really thinking there. Those are the kinds of places NASA needs to go, to some extent, moving out beyond Earth orbit. There’s a lot of opportunities for NASA to be doing exploration work. You know, they need to think of themselves in the way that the government has always thought of themselves as explorers. Go out, go to the places that there is no commercial reason to go, set up an outpost, set up – you know, plant our flag and plant a little bit of infrastructure that companies in private-public partnerships can utilize.
The example of, you know, COTS and one day a CRS contract, and the way we’ve been supporting the ISS is a good model of a first step. Ten years from now, with any luck, there’s more vehicles, there’s more companies supporting things in low-Earth orbit, and there’s more destinations than just ISS. At that point, does NASA need to be sitting around saying, oh, well, how are we going to lift things into low-Earth orbit? Maybe that’s not really a worthwhile conversation, when you get to that point.
Now, if you want to talk about farther destinations, you want to talk about moving outwards, there’s absolutely a role for government. I think the trick is that as different sectors of the industry advance, NASA and the national policy in general needs to be responsive to those changes.
And I think the issue – I think you – I think you nailed it well, that the issue with the NRC report is kind of – it seems antiquated. A lot of it seems behind the times to me. Frankly, a lot of the conversation on the previous panel seemed like – it seemed like large parts of the panel were based 10, 15 years ago. I mean, I remember I worked policy issues then. There are more on those issues than not. It’s like there was a disconnect between what’s going on among private space companies now and what the discussion was.
I mean, the – my reality, and I’ll let you guys speak to yours, is that we are awash in new young entrepreneurs and people looking for jobs or starting new companies, looking to partner with you. I mean, literally awash – tens of resumes a day, and I have 15 employees, and we get tens of resumes a day.
We get regular calls of people out of Silicon Valley and New York asking how they can invest, if not in my company, in others. They’re asking to invest. And anybody who’s missed that reality is disconnected from what’s going on in the space industry today. If you’re – if you’re missing that, you’re too much time in Washington.
MR. WILSON: Will, is that the reality?
MR. POMERANTZ: I think increasingly so, yeah. And we need to sort of harvest that momentum and do a lot more with it. And when I say more, I don’t necessarily mean grander; I mean, like just in terms of numbers. More things. We still haven’t done that much in space.
You know, 545 people have gone over the past 53 years; that’s a pretty low rate. If you count up all the satellites that have ever flown, all the instruments on every satellite, it’s not that many. If you look at the success of a Silicon Valley or of any software firm, it’s because, you know, they’re pushing out new software builds a couple times a day sometimes.
That doesn’t happen in space; it’s – we’re pushing out our equivalent of new software builds once a decade. And you’re one bad day on a rocket or one congressional decision away from, well, we’re going to skip this decade and we’ll get to it next decade. It’s really hard to innovate quickly when you are – when you’re iterating so slowly. We need to change that.
MR. WILSON: So is – if I understood correctly some of what you were saying, is NASA’s role defined by a function of actually where the private sector can go, and therefore that pushes NASA out to the Lewis and Clark role?
MR. POMERANTZ: It’s got to be in their trade space. They have to understand what can I more effectively contract out or buy at commercial value? So the same way, NASA shouldn’t be buying its desktop computers or its photocopy machines, and it hasn’t been for many decades.
MR. WILSON: Or designing them themselves.
MR. POMERANTZ: Or certainly not designing them from scratch or, you know, nor should they be going and paying Xerox to design the photocopy machine. It’s probably good enough to go and buy it. If it exists, you should find a way to take advantage of it. You don’t necessarily need to pay to develop it from whole cloth, but maybe you’d need to pay for the differential. You know, we need this extra function on our photocopier that no one else needs, or we need the photocopier to have this higher level of accuracy than anyone else requires. And so yeah, we’ll pay for that development.
It isn’t that NASA should be following behind industry. That couldn’t be further from the truth. NASA has always been a leader; I hope it will always continue to be a leader. They certainly are a leader today. But they can’t – pardon the horrible pun, they can’t lead in a vacuum. They have to be aware of what’s going on in industry and figuring out how to make that push them a little further, a little faster.
MR. WILSON: So it seems there’s a commonality of a resounding sense of the viable future for space exploration, human space exploration is clearly with the private sector playing a major role.
Let’s broaden this collaboration conversation to the international. And here we are, looking at our current International Space Station in which we’re dependent on others to get us there. And we’re dealing with the reality of a really deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia right now over a Russian invasion of Ukraine. And we’ve got a lot of skepticism, if actually not legal restrictions now, on a relationship with a country like China that is committed to building its own.
So if we’re trying to think about the future, how does this international collaboration piece fit it? You made a compelling case for the public-private partnership, but isn’t the international just a complicating factor here?
Let me start with you, John, because you probably were at the heart of working on some of these collaborative deals.
MR. OLSON: Clearly and simply, international collaboration and cooperation is an absolutely essential element of any sustained exploration or utilization of space. And I couldn’t – I couldn’t say that more emphatically. However —
MR. WILSON: The fundamental reason being why?
MR. OLSON: I think – not only from the sustainability perspective, from the distribution of costs, from the diversity of intellectual and philosophical input that adds dissimilar redundancy, that adds richness and robustness, to – the United States doesn’t have the sole lock on smart, intellectual capital or great ideas.
In fact, as we see the increasing globally interdependent economies, as we see the explosive transfer of growth and knowledge, I think truly, solutions are coming from around the globe and we absolutely must harness those. But we’ve got to do so in a very enlightened way. We should be a leader, but we should also do so in a very enlightened way and inclusive way, and a way that encourages vigorous dialogue and communication and then sets forth these plans.
It’s a delicate dance. It’s more expensive, it’s time-consuming; there’s lingual and temporal barriers. But nevertheless, I truly and absolutely believe that all of the results from it are more than overbearing and outweighing of the negatives. And we’ve seen that – we’ve seen that in the International Space Exploration Coordination Group that NASA has done.
We’ve seen that in getting the political side. The White House recently hosted the International Space Exploration Forum to get the – to get 40 countries from around the globe – not just the tier one, two and three spacefaring countries and space-competent nations, but those that choose or want to and desire to be there.
So I think we’ve got to be inclusive. We’ve got to be shrewd and smart. It’s not a naïve pursuit, but nevertheless, it’s an absolutely essential one.
MR. WILSON: So space programs have often been an element of national prestige for countries. So maybe, Dale, pick this up. How do we address the realities and the vulnerabilities of facing the challenge of relationship between the United States and a Russia, the United States and China today, for example?
MR. SKRAN: Well, this is definitely an area in which the United States needs to balance conflicting goals. You know, as a patriotic American, I don’t think that the United States’ space program should be as dependent as it is on Russian technology. And that’s also the position of the National Space Society. You know, we’re very concerned that all our activities in space may become or already have become hostage to international political developments.
So, you know, we would really like to see – and this is a National Space Society position – we would like to see more independence in – and not that we should not work with the Russians. We should continue to work with the Russians as long as they’re willing to work with us. We’re not against, in any way, international cooperation.
But there’s a difference between cooperation and dependence, and the United States has unfortunately gotten into a position really of almost abject dependence on the Russians. I mean, if you or someone came from outer space and said, who’s in charge in space, Russia or America, you’d almost have to say the Russians. And that’s just – we can’t continue like that.
MR. WILSON: So – I mean, I want to ask you how this sounds from a private sector framework, where there’s compelling reasons for cost and capability to partner and to collaborate, and yet, as you think about the future, it’s unlikely that the United States or NASA could even be as dominant of an actor as it was in the past. Even the terms on which we set out agreements for the International Space Station are likely to look different in the future.
So how do you actually respond to the Society’s sort of statement, which many would agree with, that we don’t want a program dependent – we support cooperation, but not dependency – yet the reality is we’re going to see rising capabilities and rising costs that should lean us into international cooperation.
MR. SKRAN: So I’m going to pause and then come to your question in a moment.
Before we go any further with our entire discussion, I want to take just a minute or two to talk about semantics, because we keep – there keep being words that are variously used. I notice the panelists are being a little bit carefuller – more careful, but – right. There you are. But I do want to take a minute to talk about words.
MR. WILSON: You can correct me.
MR. SKRAN: Here to correct. So, space. It’s a place; it’s not a program. There are programs. NASA has a program, a particular company can have a program, and when we talk about space, we can talk about it in the sense of national programs or company programs. But it need not necessarily be the space program or nothing. That is a – it’s a word and it’s a way of talking that falls out of how we always thought of space previously, but that’s not where we are anymore. There’s a different reality on the ground.
Similar goes with the words exploration, that a company might be in charge – or a company’s job might be going from here to low-Earth orbit. Well, I mean, I’m sure there are things that – I know that there are things that we need to learn in low-Earth orbit that we haven’t learned before, but is that company particularly exploring? You know, that’s a hard – that’s a hard thing to say.
I really liked when you twisted – I heard you sort of – I could even see your brain clicking through it, where you said space exploration and utilization. Now we’re talking about an industrial activity more than we’re talking about – or a research activity, more than we’re talking about going somewhere that we’ve never been before or really crossing a new frontier in the sense of something like that.
So when we think about all these issues, we need to understand – we need to make sure that we’re careful of our words, because to my ear at least – and maybe it’s just because I’ve been thinking about this – there are implications associated with how we phrase talking about space.
To your point, though, to talk about international, there are different flavors of international. First, there’s company decisions on international. So do we try to work with foreign companies to do other things? One of the things in my business that always comes up is, oh, you could go buy some spacesuit parts from the Russians. And there are a million reasons that’s a bad idea, but it’s something that always seems to enter the conversation.
You could build a partnership with a foreign engine or component manufacturer and some of the big guys have done that, and sometimes it’s worked; sometimes it hasn’t. Sometimes it’s hamstrung them. So that’s one level of international partnerships, and that’s not programmatic, it’s company-to-company doing business with a foreign partner. So that’s one level of international cooperation.
And yeah, that can impact costs for the better or worse, programs for the better or worse, schedule for the better or worse. And then when you move it up to a higher level, then you can look at national agencies, either the – you know, the government, or whether it’s NASA or some other federal agency, do they partner internationally? And then have to weigh costs and risks.
You know, there are – there are technology issues, a lot of the same issues companies face. But in looking at promoting maybe their long-term exploration goals in the way that I think that word is appropriately used, there are tons of opportunities for international cooperation, and we shouldn’t stand in the way of them.
That said, I do have to echo Dale’s point. You don’t want to find yourself completely hamstrung because a foreign partner decides to pull a capability. I mean, that – when that was – when those kinds of relationships were originally set up, the Russians being the number-one example right now, they were more redundancy and less reliance. Today we don’t have another option.
Now, you know, they haven’t pulled that yet and we’re rapidly moving towards our own capabilities, but, you know, that’s risk that’s emerged from, frankly, bad planning.
MR. WILSON: So let me jump over and pick back up with you, Will, on, I think, a point that you made, Jeff. As you think about the – as you think about international collaboration, but not with foreign governments, foreign agencies, where do you see credible, viable, growing private-sector counterparts for this industry?
MR. POMERANTZ: Yeah, it’s a great question. And it’s important that when we talk about international, we’re not just talking about foreign space agencies. That’s a key part, but also, you know, to take my company alone, we’ve got customers in 58, I think, different countries around the world. Yes, I think we have more customers in the U.S. than any other single country, but it’s not a – it’s certainly not a majority of our customers, by any stretch of the imagination.
And for that matter, although all of our technology is American, all of our investment is not and so we have been able to successfully go out and attract dollars from other countries, or pounds sterling or whatever the currency of choice may be for those. And I think that’s increasingly true.
We also – you know, I think others on the panel have mentioned we get consistently flooded in applications from highly qualified people, both young and less young, who would love to come and work for us. And if policy were such that we could – while complying with both the spirit and the letter of the law we could employ those people, they could be a great source of talent to come to this country. I won’t get into a whole debate about what exactly those rules should be, and I think everyone in the room here – I see a lot of nods-slash-grimaces about that particular issue.
MR. WILSON: And you thought space policy was hard —
MR. POMERANTZ: That’s right. (Inaudible) – control policy it’s – other thing.
But it’s funny; I would argue that today, actually, I think the United States’ leadership position is stronger than it’s ever been in many ways, if you don’t define the United States as NASA.
MR. : That’s true.
MR. POMERANTZ: In the ’60s, if the space race was the Olympics, the Soviets spent most of the time on the gold-medal platform, we spent most of the time on the silver platform and there was nobody on the bronze-medal platform. It’s now a race of more than two, and maybe NASA – NASA, I think, is still usually on the gold-medal platform. Sometimes they aren’t, and I would love to see them always on the gold-medal platform, because I love my country and I love my agency.
But if you look at is there any foreign company that gets a fraction of the public segment of a SpaceX or a Virgin Galactic or a Planet Labs or a Skybox or – all these companies that you’re reading about on your non-space websites that are showing up in your Twitter feed, they’re all, without exception, I think, American companies right now, or conducting most of their work here in the United States
MR. WILSON: Interesting. So let me come back to maybe Dale and John then.
So where do you see rising capabilities? Who’s moving on to the bronze platform? Who is back to the governments and the space agencies? Where are you seeing rising capabilities, both in terms of potential new partnerships for collaboration, but also maybe some alternatives – alternative models, alternative frameworks without the United States? What’s happening in Asia? What’s happening in Europe?
MR. SKRAN: I’d like to —
MR. WILSON: Please, yeah. Take that, Dale.
MR. SKRAN: One of the major initiatives that the National Space Society promotes is solar power satellites and beamed energy back, which has been floating around for a long time. NASA money hasn’t been spent on it for decades. It turns out the person who was in charge of advanced technologies at NASA, John Mankins, just now happens to be a collaborator of mine on the NSS policy committee.
And we have been trying to lead an international effort – really a NGO, foreign-government collaboration to restart interest in solar power satellites. And solar power satellites are of great interest in China and Japan. They have significant government funding in those countries, as opposed to basically zero in the U.S., although there is a small amount of military money that goes into it in the U.S.
It’s an area that requires international cooperation. It’s very similar to geosynchronous satellites. The satellites need to be in certain orbits. They need to use certain frequencies, which is one of my interests. I’m an expert in international standards negotiations in the ITU, and we’re actively considering, you know, starting an initiative to reserve the frequencies.
This is an area where international cooperation would be critical to space development. And it’s not something that you can just kind of do in a cowboy way. And it also has legal interactions with green power. We took a position basically in Europe that solar – space solar power should be treated the same when we do feed-through tariffs in different countries where, for example, power utilities will buy electricity from wind and solar. We took the position that they should also pay the same price for space solar power, if and when it becomes available. So I think that’s a great area of potential collaboration.
MR. WILSON: It sounded like some of that expertise – based out of Europe, so let me come back to you, John, with your hand in the policy world more recently. We have a question coming in. I’ve got some questions here from – over Twitter; I just want to work a few of them in as they relate to the conversation.
And John Shelton, who’s done a lot of work on this, has asked how and should we cooperate with China at the cost of jeopardizing our relationship with Japan? So take us to Asia and help us understand that context.
MR. OLSON: Well, that’s a – that’s a great question, and a tough question. It’s multi-faceted.
And of course, I wear a couple of different hats, one as a former White House guy and a NASA person, subject to the laws of the nation certainly. But I also have a national security hat that I wear. And so this is a very challenging topic.
On the one hand, the Asia Pacific, you asked the question earlier about where are those emerging, are those exciting sectors across the globe. The Asia Pacific space arena across all elements of the portfolio is extraordinarily hot right now.
As you look at China and you look at Japan and you look at India and you look at South Korea and then Vietnam and Malaysia and all the – all the fabric of the countries there, I think you see that space is absolutely a tool and an element of economic security, national security, geostrategic posturing and leadership. And it’s almost a survival skill. If you do not choose to keep pace and establish and innovate, you will be – you will be quickly supplanted and surpassed. And I think it’s – I think it’s extraordinarily important there.
As we talk, Japan is – Japan is one of the partners to the International Space Station. It’s a strategic ally of the United States and it’s an extraordinarily important country from a variety of reasons, both economically and politically and security wise, as also a broader influence agent in the ASEAN community.
However, China has made extraordinary progress in both robotic and human space flight. Their program is still dominated by the military, and I think that creates challenges, structural challenges and real challenges. There’s – there are certainly issues of intellectual property and following international rules and compliance with everything from protection of that IP to space traffic management and following the rules and being a good steward in the international community.
But at the same time, they are absolutely a force to be reckoned with. They are truly a global player in space, and if you look at their cadence of spacecraft and developments and launches, it is absolutely something that we need to address head on. I think we need to have these kind of discussions where we actively communicate and passionately weigh the pros and cons.
There are no silver bullet, single nice Twitter-sized or tweet-sized 140-character answers. There’s no simple solutions to it. Because if we don’t, if we don’t engage, I think that’s detrimental. If we do engage, there’s a very specific set of criteria and rules and sensitivities that we have to carefully manage. And so I say we engage, but we do so eyes wide open. We also do so in fora that are a little bit on the periphery, those things that can aid the dialogue getting to somewhat more central topics. But I think those are the topics that we need to be engaging, ultimately.
MR. WILSON: Jeff, do you have a view on this, where that line is with China, and how should we think about a potential in the future of a Chinese-led space station that has Russia and maybe even the European Space Agency as partners, but not the United States?
MR. FEIGE: That’s an interesting example. It’s actually an example that’s an easier question and a more comfortable question than plenty of other ways you could have phrased it, so thank you. That’s great.
MR. OLSON: Then take my words and make them harder for you. (Laughter.) Parse that out.
MR. FEIGE: Well, let me put it the easy way first and then I’ll scratch my head as I work my way through here. I tend to think and talk. That’s sort of how it usually comes out.
So to give the example that you said, maybe a Chinese-dominated or Chinese-Russian-dominated in-space facility. Something like that is fairly easy because I think you can arrange, for example, visiting spacecraft, and even commercially or via NASA, delivery of supplies and personnel.
And that creates a good opportunity to work together, in large part because you can sort of manage your own technology by saying the stuff that you’re really worried about, perhaps, them accessing is buried deep enough in the guts of the spacecraft that there are probably ways – not necessarily, but there would seem to be, my entrepreneurial brain says there are ways that you can sort of deal with the technological risk issues, which is really where we tend to intersect in a negative way with the Chinese, right?
But if you – it’s where you go harder, it’s where you say oh, well, we’re going to build a system together. We’re going to make two complicated things, not just interact some, but truly be melded into one. That’s where you start running into a much more complicated scenario. And I think those are the places where we tend to drag our feet.
I mean, even certainly my understanding of it is – and John, you might have been closer to this – you know, I know that NASA personnel, even if they have the opportunity to talk to someone in the – maybe the national Chinese program and just say, hey, what are you guys working on? Here’s what we’re working on; maybe there’s an opportunity. Even those level of conversations get shut down from a national level.
MR. : Yes, multilateral discussions are the only ones that are currently allowed.
MR. FEIGE: That happen.
MR. WILSON: And is that something that folks would agree is something that is not in our American interest, or is that something that should change? How does the Society think about this? Yes, please.
MR. SKRAN: We’re the National Space Society. In spite of the word national, we’re an international group. We favor international collaboration and we are actively trying to reach out to the Chinese, are actively inviting the Chinese to the International Space Development Conference, which is going to be next May in Toronto, Canada, which should facilitate talking to the Chinese a little bit.
It is unfortunate – let me just say, as a patriotic American and as a businessman who has deployed products in China, I have an acute understanding of the situation in China. There are plenty of people in China who will steal every single intellectual property thing you have and a few that you didn’t know you had. So you need to collaborate, or sell in China with your eyes open.
On the other hand, it just seems that we need to find a way to collaborate with the Chinese. And I think it’s something that we need to do. If we can collaborate with the Russians, our sworn enemies in the Cold War, we can figure out a way to collaborate with the Chinese.
MR. WILSON: So I want to pick up —
MR. FEIGE (?): I have a follow-up to that, real briefly. I think it’s fair to say that the United States presently leads this commercial revolution, and those words are carefully chosen. I think this is revolutionary and transformative, but that’s a delicate leadership. We have not a sole lock on it, but we have a tremendous wealth of vibrant and dynamic and ever-increasing companies working in this space.
However, at the very same time – and it pains me to say this – but the United States is basically third in terms of our inability to put humans organically into space. And that’s a problem. I think that’s a structural dependency and a structural gap and a void for which we’ve had several well-thought-out, well-laid-out plans.
But the bottom line is we have a gap in human space flight, one we tried to avoid, one which is substantively negative for us. We’re seeing the deleterious effects of that from a geopolitical stance right now, despite having an extraordinary partnership with the Russians in space. And it’s a very productive relationship for so many years, and the very reason why we’re still continuously crewed aboard the International Space Station for 12 years is due to the – due to the Russians.
But at the same time, that does not mean we should have an absolute structural dependency. And we should maintain that leadership; that should be a national priority. That should be an industry priority, and engaging with the rest of the world from that enlightened leadership stance is where we ought to be.
And I think that’s what each of us is advocating in our groups, in our companies, and in our – we’re not speaking those as words. And that’s one of the real reasons, is I felt like the words and the policies in place at the White House, it is now time to implement and do it and lead it and make it and drive it to success. And that is not easy, but that’s what we – that’s what we need to do in this and in that leadership environment.
MR. WILSON: That’s a good call to action. I want to connect what you said with, I think, an earlier comment from Will. And I think you put an emphasis on individuals being able to actually play in this game now. And you were making a point of our gap and our vulnerability in human space exploration; that’s what we’re focused on.
But one of the questions we have coming in from one of our colleagues, Zapara Ghita (ph), how are emerging technologies empowering individuals to be part of space exploration? Any opportunities for crowd-sourcing projects – which we had read a little bit about – and is this only focused on lower-end or on utilization versus human space exploration?
MR. POMERANTZ: I think we’re already seeing all of those things. We have gotten to the point where, within a few months, you will be able to send a human being into space for $250,000. There are some near-space opportunities already available at the $100,000 or less price range. You can do parabolic flight at 5,000 (dollars) or $6,000 a person.
Those things are well within the range, not only of basically every government on the planet, but a lot of educational institutions, private individuals, middle-school bake sales. You can start doing meaningful things in space for not that much money anymore.
Some of that is a technology revolution. A lot of it is not a technology revolution. If you look at our technology in Virgin Galactic, it’s not that distant from the X-15 program. We didn’t have to invent new bells and whistles. We’re not flying on dilithium crystals and quantum computing; it’s just a new way of packaging old technology where we are aiming at those lower price points. Those are our target customers. We’re not swinging for the fences and trying to win a billion-dollar contract. We’re trying to win 700 $250,000 contracts. And that’s what we’ve been able to do.
And hopefully, when you combine those with CubeSats and asteroid mining campaigns and spacesuits and space diving and all these other exciting things, when you add in – particularly as of 4:00 p.m. today when we start to know more about the next commercially built human orbital space flight capability, those vehicles I think are all going to have price tags in the tens of millions of dollars per person.
Again, these are still at affordable levels for many, many more people, which gets more people excited. It gets more young people who want to work in our industry. It gets more Silicon Valley and investment capital flowing in. And hopefully creates this rising tide that floats all these boats.
MR. WILSON: So let me go back and connect what John was pushing for. Let’s get on with implementing a policy we have out there now, and pick up the next question I have over Twitter from a Marsha Smith. And maybe I’ll bring that to Jeff and Dale.
So what about the Mars, 2021 Mars flyby, Inspiration Mars concept? Great idea. Is this the path forward silly idea? Where does it stand? So Jeff and Dale, do you want to pick up parts of that?
MR. SKRAN: You want to go first, Jeff?
MR. FEIGE: Yeah. I’ll take a casual – I’ll take a casual shot at it and give a good non-answer, as any panelist should.
All ideas are OK ideas, so long as they’re not, you know, basically using sort of the – be it the regulatory or the national infrastructure in a way that limits other people’s ideas. So, you know, things like the Inspiration Mars and the 2021 flyby, these are, for the most part – I mean, to my knowledge, they may be building, you know, space act agreements or smaller partnerships with NASA, but for the most part, these are private efforts.
If they can fund them, they should do them. It’s just – it’s not a – that’s the beauty of where things are changing. There was a time when it becomes this giant national public debate. Should we go to Mars or not or should we go to the Moon or not, and which one matters? Well, if you’re talking about spending NASA money, we can keep having that debate. If you’re talking about spending philanthropic private money or commercial private money, if they can do it and it’s within the legal regulatory framework, have at it.
If there’s going to be five different companies that want to do various Mars things over the next 10 years, again, God love you. Go do it. There’s nothing standing in your way. And when John said, let’s go implement that policy of leadership, that’s what he means. I believe. I’m not putting words in your mouth —
MR. OLSON: Yup.
MR. FEIGE: But that’s what you’re saying. We’re saying industry leadership, national leadership, that’s not just an agency’s leadership. So it’s a fairly easy answer. It’s not – those ideas are good ideas or bad ideas. We can always talk. If someone defines an architecture or a program or a project, we can always talk about, well, I don’t like this one and I do like that one.
MR. WILSON: So Dale, did you want to add to that?
MR. SKRAN: I really want to add something. Look, I completely agree with you to the extent that Dennis Tito or Mars One is funding it themselves. That’s perfectly fine with me. Obviously there’s some value in what they’re doing, technically. However, that’s not the reality of the current situation, and I think you’re a little out of touch with that.
There is an active movement in Congress to make that the NASA Mars program – a flyby around Mars, a launch by – (inaudible). I think that’s a terrible idea. It’s a complete waste of the taxpayers’ money.
There always is some technological value in anything you do, including building – anyway, I don’t want to get into it – but it is not in any sense the kind of space program America deserves.
MR. FEIGE (?): You know, you are right. When I was – what I was thinking of, you know, Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars, I was thinking of the – what is it – the Inspiration Mars, Mars One, the reality show project. You keep hearing about all —
MR. WILSON: To be fair, she touched on both, both approaches. But – I mean, you said, let’s get on with it and are we actually getting on with it. John, if we’re going down this path on a – the Mars – the asteroid flyby, the Mars flyby. Is this not the right way to go, where the movement in Congress is pushing policy?
MR. OLSON: My perspective is that we need a realistic – and by realistic, it’s got to pass through the filters of the political, economic, programmatic, technical and geostrategic and popular support. Because it – you know, no bucks, no Buck Rogers. And the full taxpaying community has to, in our country, be supportive. And that also has to flow up through the – from a White House direction and from a congressional support.
But your question is really, do I think – do I think that’s the right solution? I don’t think that’s it at all. I think it’s not about a single-point solution, and I think bringing it back to the whole context of today’s conversation is as we look at the NRC study, it laid out a couple of pathways. I think some of those pathways are more robust than the others. I think the flexible path is a logical – it’s a result of the fiscal and political dynamics that are really the drivers that shaped it.
But I think what I’ve learned – and I think the commercial crew transportation program in and of itself is a perfect example of that – we absolutely welcome all competition. Coopetition is great. Diversity of ideas is great. Dissimilar redundancy is great. And look at what we’ve done in just the short span with very few dollars.
But today we will hear that announcement, where we’ll have one or more – two or more, we hope – of the competitors selected to continue forward. But in that vein, we see that setting very real structural date-time-objective targets is helpful.
So having a capability-driven, flexible-path approach where everything incrementally builds so you are constantly making progress, it’s just exactly what we do in our lives. We set goals, and to achieve those goals, you have incremental milestones, but you set those goals and then you have capabilities. You develop a tool set.
We went to – we got our academic training. We got our job experience. We’ve had our life experience. All those marry who we are just as a small microcosm of what we’re doing on the national level. So I think that’s how we get there. I think that’s the path, and I think saying that it’s just one thing is absolutely the wrong argument.
And I think the beauty of today and why it’s so right is we’re not really talking about if we’re going to have a space program anymore, we’re talking about what we’re going to do. And a space program is far from just NASA. I mean, there’s a whole national security space, a whole commercial space, a whole industry opportunity. LEO, beyond LEO, suborbital – it’s awesome.
MR. WILSON: So John, let me stop you there. We’re about to hit the clock. But I want to ask one more question that we got in over Twitter related to your flag in the national security space for whoever wants to take this on the panel, and then I’ll come – I want to do a wrap-up with each of you on the way forward.
But what are the military applications of emerging space technology? Is it a separate application from utilization? From Dan Letovsky. Who wants to pick up the military side of that equation?
MR. OLSON (?): I’ll pick that up, gently. If I understand the question – so he’s sort of asking what is – we’ve been discussing sort of the revolution that’s been going on in space, the phrase within our organization is new space is what we like to call it. But we’re discussing that process and how that influences the entire space enterprise, say. And so the question is sort of – hopefully I’m capturing this right – sort of how does that impact the national security space and military space? OK.
Well, assuming that’s the question, the answer is, in tons and tons and tons of ways, and it’s hard – you’re not going to be able to easily articulate just one or two. The easy ones that I would take a crack at are when you have, you know, higher flight rates, reduced costs of getting to space. You put those two pieces together and the range of applications that can be employed vastly increases. So it’s not one specific thing, not OK, well, now we can do this. There’s a whole range of things.
And you’re even beginning to see, at least in my view, a shift in how sort of our national security enterprise thinks about space because of those emerging changes. Not that they’re particularly operationally available today, but there are plenty of thinkers in that space who are able to look over the horizon, figuratively in this case, and begin to say, OK, well, there really is something different I’m going to be able to do with space than what I could do previously.
So I think that’s a broad whack at it, if anyone else wants to —
MR. WILSON: So let my try to – I’m going to – let me try to wrap this with – we’re talking about pathways approach, this NRC study’s on the table, and part of the purpose is to animate a conversation. So I want, in 10 seconds, 15-second answers, just a core element. If we are really building a community to think about how we forge a strategy that’s going to ensure that U.S. human space exploration is part of our permanent national fabric, what are the one or two things that you would flag for us that need to be core to that long-term strategy?
Let me just come down the line and use this as a way to get your closing thought, but quite tight.
MR. OLSON (?): OK, I’ll do it in a lightning round. I think absolutely we should be focused on Mars as the horizon destination. It should go through moon; we should fully exploit and utilize low-Earth orbit, suborbital and everywhere in between. I think it’s got to be absolutely affordable and sustainable. I think the innovation benefits, the geostrategic benefits and the national security are absolutely the fundamental drivers, and it’s about doing it.
We already have it occurring; we need to continue to enable it from a regulatory and a policy and a – and a funding, and we need to resource it. We need to – we need to get people amped up about it and we need to commit to it because it’s the best thing for our country in the short term, mid-term and long term.
MR. WILSON: Will, in 20 seconds.
MR. POMERANTZ: Yeah, I’d say we need to stop arguing about which direction we should go and what priority we should visit these places and just go out there and do the damn thing. This question of moon first or Mars first has become so profoundly uninteresting to me because I realized we’ve been having the exact same argument for 40 years and nothing about it has changed. So let’s just go. We can course-correct along the way. We should always be monitoring technologies and other foreign things, you know, international elements. We’ll course-correct, but just start going.
The other element I would say is do lots of little things in addition to one big thing, or maybe in place of one big thing. Do lots of little things. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
MR. WILSON: Dale, you’re up.
MR. SKRAN: We need to have human settlement of space as the overriding horizon goal and not a particular destination, as my colleagues have pointed out. We need to make the foundation of that overriding goal the economic development of cislunar space, and that should be our sort of project for our time.
MR. FRIEGE: My God, can any of you guys not take my talking points? (Laughter.) That was great.
MR. WILSON: You said you would be contrarian.
MR. FRIEGE: I can’t even be.
MR. WILSON: All right. So bring us to a close, Jeff.
MR. FEIGE: Dale did perfect; I’ll do one quick little line.
So long as we’re enabling a truly competitive industry, we’ll get there. When you don’t enable competition, when – if they pare down – you know, this decision that’s coming? If they pare it down to one company they will sabotage the purpose of the program.
And who knows how this is going to play out, but if you don’t have lots of competitors in the mix, you will never get to the goal of something cheaper. When we talk about space, we found a really good way to short-circuit the development of a sector where every other part of our economy, everyone says, well, in five years it’ll be half the price. Space has managed to reverse that through the absence of this issue.
MR. WILSON: That’s fantastic. I found – I actually learned a tremendous amount from you guys. I want to thank you so much for giving us your time. More importantly, for sharing your insights with us. I thought that was incredibly informative, but also pretty fun and exciting. So please join me in thanking our panel for a terrific conversation. (Applause.) Thank you very much. I’m going to invite you off.
I’m going to ask that you remain seated. We’re going to transition directly into our final keynote, and I’m really looking forward to this closing here.
We’re going to move on to our last speaker who will discuss “Daretaker, Caretaker, Undertaker – Which are You?” It’s not the kind of specialist who’s normally featured at events like this, neither a rocket scientist nor a policy-maker. Direct here from Hollywood, we have Bob Rogers.
Bob is a twice-Oscar-nominated filmmaker with over 300 other international awards for creative excellence. He’s recently been elected to the board of directors of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
The company he founded, BRC Imagination Arts, creates permanent visitor experiences for companies like NASA, Disney, Ford, Coca-Cola – and I’m sure today that we are in for one of those experiences ourselves. So please join me and welcome Bob Rogers to the podium. Thank you. (Applause.)
BOB ROGERS: Thank you, Damon. Thank you. OK. So I’d like to start by thanking all of you for whatever failure of good judgment caused me to be invited to speak here to you today. Normally, our work at BRC Imagination Arts is creating visitor experiences. We are placemakers, storytellers, filmmakers, creators of permanent destinations that engage public imagination.
Normally, we don’t participate in creating the real space program, but as part of our work, we do think about it a lot. And we think about it very differently.
Just to put you at ease, right after this speech, I’m leaving. I’m going back to California, so if you like what I say today, great. Take it, go forward, make it your own. But if yon don’t like it, no worries, because, like Bret Maverick on that old, old TV show, in every episode he would say, I don’t want to get involved. I’m just passing through.
As I said, I’m a storyteller. So in today’s story, I’m casting you as the good guys. You’re going to be the heroes, just like those guys in “The Right Stuff.”
(Video clip plays.)
That’s you – the hero. If you didn’t believe that good things could happen for NASA manned space flight, you wouldn’t have come here today. by coming here today, I have volunteered you to be the rescuers – to do whatever it takes to put NASA’s manned space flight program back in space. That’s why, in this story, I cast you as the hero.
But like every – like the hero in every good story, you are up against an awesome villain, a mindless natural power that appears invincible. (Music from “Jaws” plays.) In 25 years, this power has murdered 20 NASA dreams and two presidential initiatives. It isn’t a monster of flesh and blood, but an evil force of nature. It is Daretaker, Caretaker, Undertaker. A natural force in the universe as powerful and inescapable as Newton’s First Law, as certain as weight gain at Christmastime: Daretaker, Caretaker, Undertaker. Here’s how it works.
A great enterprise or culture rises through the efforts of daretakers. With the demise of the original daretakers, control transfers to professional managers and administrators. Eventually, a tipping point is reached. New competition appears; there’s a cultural shift, something happens, and after that, the leadership presides over accelerating decline, trying to die slowly rather than quickly – the undertaker phase.
Daretaker, caretaker, undertaker. You can see the monster’s deadly work throughout history – the rise and fall of ancient Egypt, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and fall of the British Empire, the rise and fall of Tickle Me Elmo. (Laughter.) You can see it in sports. The underdog team comes on with a burst of energy and heart, playing beyond their ability – that is to say, daretaker style. But then they end up losing the game because at some point they stop playing to win daretaker style, and they start playing instead to not lose, undertaker style.
If this enemy’s pattern seems familiar, like you’ve seen it before someplace, well, you have. The trajectory is not at all unlike a space shuttle mission. The rise of the daretaker phase is like ascent – fiery, bumpy, dangerous, exciting. Things are happening very fast. The ever-so-slightly declining middle, the caretaker phase, is like time on orbit. Everything happens slowly on orbit, or you don’t come home. All is gentle, deliberate, thoughtful and always under control.
Then a tipping point arrives, either by choice or by neglect, and serious re-entry begins. If you manage your energy carefully, you land safely. If not, you burn up. But one way or another, you’re going down.
For a moment, let’s think about other organizations. Where would you place their progress today on this curve? How about Eastman Kodak? Daretaker George Eastman builds an empire by democratizing photography, putting a camera in the hand of almost everyone. Kodak owned image capture. Where is Kodak on this curve today? Pixar Animation – where are they today? Probably somewhere near the transition from daretaker to caretaker, trying desperately to remain daretakers.
Pan Am? Pan Am once dominated international airline travel. Today they are a fashionable handbag. Southwest Airlines? The daretaker phase has clearly established them. Probably now they might be in – I don’t know. Early caretaker? Tesla Motors. You know, you – absolutely daretakers still.
Now, you probably figured this was coming. Think about that for a moment, or for a few days, and seek the opinions of others. Especially seek the opinion of others who are outside the Beltway. On the way home tonight, ask a taxi driver, a waiter or a hotel clerk questions like, how many astronauts can you name? And when they do name some, count up and see how many of them are from the daretaker 1960s and how many are from the last 30 years of caretaker. Also ask them, are there people in space right now? See if they know. See if they know how many. See if they can name even one in the last 10 years.
It’s scary. Most people outside of this room will put NASA’s Manned Space Flight Program at the shoulder, just starting into undertaker mode, or maybe a lot further down. In fact, many Americans truly believe NASA was cancelled with the shuttle. They think you are already dead. Time is not on your side.
So, is NASA’s Manned Space Flight Program in or headed right into undertaker mode? The law of daretaker, caretaker, undertaker certainly says so. Now, is that OK with you? Everybody here OK with that? Well, of course not. That’s why you’re here today, and that’s why you’ve been cast as the heroes. Against all odds, you are going to defeat the monster and reverse this. But can you reverse it? Can anyone? Is the undertaker mode inevitable and fatal?
Walt Disney was a daretaker. From 1923 to 1966 he built the brand with Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Mary Poppins, Disneyland. Then, in 1966, Walt dies, and the next day on Wall Street the price of Disney stock goes up. Why? The caretakers are finally rid of the crazy fool who was plowing all the profits back into the company. Now at last they’re going to have some sensible management and they’re going to get some dividends. That’s smart caretaking.
But caretaker mode wasn’t quite like their daretaker mode. Disney’s films in this middle period include memorable films like “Oliver and Company,” “The Rescuers,” “The Black Cauldron,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Fox and Hound,” “The Great Mouse Detective” – all very forgettable – and, of course, the film that, to me, the title of which summarizes this period in their history. Creatively and economically, the film was titled “The Black Hole” – (laughter) – that they chose to make when they turned down the opportunity to make “Star Wars.”
By 1984, Disney was fighting an unfriendly takeover by a raider who planned to break up Disney and sell off the pieces, kind of like what happens to a pig when it goes to market – clearly, undertaker mode. But then a new daretaker showed up, Michael Eisner, and soon after, the studio was releasing films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” – hits. Daretaker phase was back.
How about Steve Jobs? The daretaker builds a company. He’s a genius, but quite a handful. He drives his managers nuts. Eventually, the board fires him. Apple enters caretaker mode and quickly transitions to undertaker mode. But Jobs returns; a new daretaker phase begins.
Richard Branson, Virgin Records – but before the record industry can enter undertaker mode, Virgin Airlines. And before that can get old, Virgin Galactic. Same daretaker, different dares.
So the way to reverse the start of undertaker mode is with a new daretaker mode. So where does that leave all of us? Oh, yeah. The old fork in the road. The choices are simple – it’s down or up. Down into undertaker mode, or up into a new daretaker mode. In the words of a famous astronaut, you’re going somewhere really fast. You’d better just hope it’s up.
Now, in many hero stories there’s a wise mentor who guides the hero. Characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Good Witch of the East, the old boxing coach in “Rocky,” the Fairy Godmother, Dumbledore.
To help you, we’ve rounded up some of the great advisers from history. Here’s one. That’s probably too small to read, so I’ll read it for you. “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him with the words ‘And this too shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” – Abraham Lincoln. Yes, this situation will pass. You will go up or you will go down, but you will not stay where you are.
Here’s another one. “We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.” Benj. Franklin. Another way of saying this exact same thing but with more edge to it is, when Democrats form a firing squad, they get in a circle. (Laughter.) Of course, you can use this on anybody, Democrats or Republicans. This is an equal opportunity insult. But really, when it is used, the firing squad metaphor is almost never used as an insult. Instead, what it really is is a rallying cry. It’s used by people who are trying to get their own group moving together as a team.
Does this apply to this present situation in any way? I wonder. If it does apply, the firing squad circle is certainly not driven by malice, but by sincere people doing the best they can, but without a shared objective and plan. Let me say that again: if it does apply, the firing squad circle is not driven by malice, but by sincere people who merely lack a shared objective and plan.
But something sure as hell is causing the 25 years of program start, stop, churn. If the problem is simply that we don’t have a shared objective and plan, well, now, you sort of have one. And as the hero in the story, it will be your job to sell this plan to divided constituencies. Does that already start to sound dangerous?
“If you climb a mountain 1,000 feet tall and fall off, you are just as dead as if you’d fallen off a mountain that’s 30,000 feet tall, so you might as well be climbing the higher mountain.” – Bob Ballard, deep ocean explorer. Or this one, “We are not going to bet the company on an insane idea; we are instead going to bet the company on an insanely great idea.” – Michael Eisner.
So just what is this insanely great idea that’s supposed to fix things? Well, we’ve seen today that the NRC report outlines for the first time in recent memory – and that’s – underline that – for the first time in recent memory, a shared objective for NASA Manned Space Flight. And that objective is to maximize benefit it the nation, paired with sustainability. The report defines those. We’ve learned that the report goes on to outline a way to achieve all of this by adoption of pathway principles and decision rules, which the report spells out.
Now, I’m a visual guy, so here’s how I picture it. A floating pyramid benefits the nation. That’s the lofty, selfless goal, an aspiration. Never mind where we’re going; this is about why we’re going. And when you find the perfect benefit to nation, you will know it’s perfect because it will also have sustainability – the robust qualities that any program needs in order to last through the decades necessary to implement any space program.
Compelling today and compelling 10 years from today: this isn’t two things. You’re looking for one thing with both qualities. It points to the sky and yet it is solidly grounded. Once this has been identified, the pathway principles and design rules keep you on the path. Your hero mission will be to develop a single goal combining these: benefit to the nation and sustainability.
But are these shared principles really enough to reverse 25 years of start, stop, churn? Can they really stop 25 years of filling the graveyard of dreams? Can they really prevent 25 more years and prevent another 20 or so crushed dreams? Could this approach unify NASA and its stakeholders on a sustainable path beyond the Earth orbit – a pathway to success? Well, hell, what do I know? I don’t know. My specialty is public engagement, not leading the exploration of the universe. That’s your job.
But here’s what I see. Number one, this does look like the best shot you’ve got. Number two, it came from a source external to NASA, a very authoritative group with no dog in the fight, the National Research Council. And number three, for sure, you’re going somewhere fast; you’d better just hope it’s up.
At this point, some of you may be asking, why me? And with good reason, because the task ahead is not a movie. The happy Hollywood ending is anything but guaranteed. This is real. If you choose the path of the hero, it will be hard. You will be badly outnumbered. You do have a great tool with the NRC report, but you will still need to make very, very difficult choices.
You’ll be trying to rescue friends and colleagues who are vested in a paradigm that has resulted in 25 years of start, stop, churn, some of whom, frankly, are not quite ready to be rescued. Everyone won’t love it. Your hero path will be lonely. So you have to ask, you sure you really want do this? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just leave this conference, go get some lunch and forget you were here? Throw this NRC report in the pile with all the rest, jokingly call it casualty number 21, just go back to business as usual – fight over destinations, fight over funding, form a firing squad by getting into a circle.
Or hey, you know what? You could just do nothing. That might be the solution. Let nature take its course – daretaker, caretaker, undertaker. No one would blame you; it’s a natural process. Daretaker, caretaker, undertaker. Not your fault. Just walk away from this. And besides, there’s always the fashion business. (Laughter.)
Or – (video clip from “The Right Stuff” plays): “We hear this is dangerous.” “You’re right; it’s dangerous. Count me in.” Sorry, no audio for that.
So who can do this? (Music plays.) You can do this. You can do this with a little bit of encouragement – put that in quotes – encouragement from friends like these: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” – Winston Churchill. “Men wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” – Ernest Shackleton.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, as it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead, anthropologist. “Well, somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” (Laughter.) – Jerry Garcia, lead singer, The Grateful Dead.
Now, if you liked what I had to say today, great. Take it, go forward, make it your own. If you didn’t like it, no worries, because, like Bret Maverick in that old TV show, I don’t want to get involved. I’m just passing through.
But that’s a lie, because I’m not just passing through. I may just be a public engagement guy, but I deeply believe in what all of you are trying to do. Now the question is, what are you going to do now? Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. WILSON: Bob, thank you so much. Thank you very much for that terrific call to action.
I just want to bring this to a close with a thank you to Bob for that. As he said, time is not necessarily on our side. Today the purpose has been on how do we pick up the work, the detailed work and technical excellent expertise from the NRC report and many others, and animate a conversation about – with the broader community about human space exploration. How do we help ensure we don’t squander the opportunity, or be stalled because of divisions, and that we move forward. So this conference, the whole effort we’ve been undertaking has been about building a community to rally around, a strategy to ensure that human space exploration is a permanent feature of our national fabric.
So I want to thank Bob for the closing remarks. I want to thank all of our speakers for sharing their thoughts with us today. I want to thank our partners at SAIC for a tremendous partnership – Tom, Kim and Mark, everybody. And most of all, thank you, because by being here today you’ve actually become part of this community and we look forward to staying in touch on next steps.
Thank you so much for joining us. (Applause.)