- Photo courtesy of SpaceX/Chris Thompson
Here’s how sci-fi writer Douglas Adams described “space” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-boggling big it is.”
You know what else is mind-boggling big? California’s space industry. That term, “mind boggling,” was dropped numerous times during the more than dozen interviews conducted to get a grasp on the story.
The California Aerospace Portal, maintained by the San Diego East County Development Council at Connectory.com, currently lists 3,554 companies engaged in the aerospace industry in California (641 in San Diego County alone), making everything from small components to launch vehicles. Combine those companies and their divergent dreams of space exploration with the complex budget wrangling of Congress; factor in the global economy and international markets as countries compete against each other, states compete against each other, and states compete against countries and blast it, we’ve just boggled ourselves.
On Thursday, July 22, the San Diego Space Society will host a panel at San Diego Comic-Con on the best industry models to take humankind into space. To help un-boggle the dreamer’s mind, here’s our list of what to watch in California in 2010:
Falcon 9 and the Dragon
The two hottest crafts of 2010 were born in Hawthorne, Calif., home of SpaceX, a company started by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. On June 4, the company’s rocket, Falcon 9, burst through the atmosphere and made history as the first commercial space craft to make orbit. It completed 300 orbits in 22 days.
“From a SpaceX perspective, the June 4 inaugural flight of Falcon 9 not only highlighted our capabilities, but also marked a key milestone for the commercial space flight industry,” SpaceX spokesperson Emily Shanklin tells CityBeat via e- mail. “The flight, which achieved 100 percent of its mission objectives and near bull’s-eye orbit insertion on its first attempt, demonstrated definitely just how powerful the partnership between government and the private sector can be.”
SpaceX currently holds a $1.6-billion contract with NASA to transport cargo between Earth and the International Space Station. The 55-foot-tall rocket was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, though the plan is to start launches from the commercial spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County by 2012.
Falcon 9’s “success was a genuine paradigm shift in the perception of not only the NASA and aerospace communities but, most importantly, the business industry,” says John Spencer, president of the L.A.-based Space Tourism Society (and spaceyacht designer).
Later this summer, SpaceX will break records again by sending up the Falcon 9 a second time, but carrying the Dragon, a capsule capable of shuttling cargo and personnel into space.
Falcon 9’s June 4 flight was the first major indication that private companies, fueled by government dollars, may be the way forward. The question is whether SpaceX will ferry people, in addition to cargo, into space.
“The success of that vehicle was really critical to some of the maneuvering that is going on in Congress today, right now, this very minute, in terms of appropriation funding and NASA’s new direction,” Spencer says.
In February, President Barack Obama outlined his vision for the space industry; he indicated that the U.S. should increase investment in private space enterprise and phase out government-run launch programs. He called for the cancellation of Constellation, the NASA launch program pushed by the George W. Bush administration to get humans back to the moon. Instead, Obama endorsed a renewed emphasis on technological development, which should then determine the country’s goals.
On June 28, Obama further cemented his position on private enterprise with a 14-page “National Space Policy,” which included, as a core principle, the idea that “a robust and competitive commercial space sector is vital to continued progress in space.” How far that plan will go remains to be seen.
“It really isn’t very clear, yet, what the Obama plan calls for,” says Jamie Foster, chief operations officer for the nonprofit California Space Authority, “but there are people who like it and people who don’t, and it kind of depends on whether or not you already have skin in the game or you’re going to get skin in the game based on a change in direction.”
Spencer calls Constellation “nothing more than a southern-states work program” that’s “behind schedules and over budget,” but several U.S. senators---mostly from southern states---disagree and have pushed back against Obama’s plan to end the program. (SpaceX’s success put some Congress members in a difficult position: Had she supported Constellation too strongly, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican from Texas, could have been seen to be supporting bigger government over privatization.)
“That’s what the big fight is about,” says Bruce Pittman, president of the Silicon Valley Space Club. “Do you want to go with the president’s plan and invest in technology and wait awhile to make decisions---or go with old technology and make it work now, no matter how expensive it is.”
On June 15, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology unanimously approved a compromise bill that would postpone the retirement of the space shuttle program---a move to preserve jobs---while allowing the president’s ultimate plan to move forward. The bill will continue to move through the Senate before going to the House for a vote.
California Space Authority
As of 2007, California’s space industry accounted for 44 percent of the U.S. space market and 21 percent of the global space market. Whatever happens next, spacers aren’t counting on the state of California for much assistance.
The nonprofit California Space Authority (CSA), technically, has no authority over anything. In 2003, the state Legislature passed a bill to require the state to contract with the CSA to manage state grant programs, provide space-policy guidance and serves the state’s official “Spaceport Authority.” The law orders the CSA to file quarterly reports and conflict-of-interest disclosures, but these requirements have been ignored by all parties since 2006, when the Legislature stopped funding the programs. The CSA is still the state’s official Spaceport Authority, which means the CSA simply notifies the state when a company files an application with the federal government to build a new spaceport.
“We’d love to [do more]---as soon as they fund it again,” the CSA’s Foster says.
Instead, the CSA has served as the equivalent of the aerospace industry’s chamber of commerce, a role at which most industry folks say the CSA is excelling. For the last four years, the CSA has managed a $16-million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to support high-tech innovation, education and job stimulation through the creation of a “California Innovation Corridor.”
Moving forward, the CSA’s No. 1 project will be to support the creation of a 71-acre, $220-million California Space Center outside the Vandenberg base. It will include conference facilities, mission-control buildings, a rocket garden, a launchviewing area and a visitor center that Foster says, when it’s ready in eight to 10 years, will be “bigger and better” than the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In the short term, however, all eyes are on the 2010-2012 California Space Enterprise Strategic Plan, which will lay out the goals for the state’s entire space industry. More than 200 individuals representing 100 organizations contributed ideas and goals through meetings and webinars held in the spring. In previous incarnations, the plan focused primarily on militarybased aerospace industries---but, with the rise of “new space” endeavors, there’s pressure for the plan to include greater focus on space tourism and other enterprise that don’t involve government funding.
Foster says there was a lot of debate over including the term “experience” in the vision statement.
“The California Space Authority is very, very good, but they’re fairly mainstream,” Spencer says. “Where the entrepreneurial spirit is and the innovation and pizzazz, you might say, is really in the emerging industry of space experience and space tourism.”
This “experience” element---whether it’s an actual space voyage or a simulation on the ground---is important to groups like the San Diego Space Society, which opened a “Space Emporium” in South Park on July 17 to serve as an education and community facility, as well as, one day, a space travel agency.
“Right now, there’s just not an understanding that these services exist locally,
and that’s what we are trying to promote,” San Diego Space Society
President Jesse Clark says. “On the larger scale, the state, through
the CSA, should take on promoting space-tourism flights throughout