Reflections on the Space Summit

April 16, 2010

I am still working on the Guide to Anonymous and Evidenceless Internet and The Feynman Constant. One of my wife’s parents is in from out of town and as you can imagine what little free time I had is being largely consumed with the necessities of maintaining the image of the perfect son-in-law. Fortunately the early risers are now napping, and I have a few minutes.

President Obama’s speech yesterday disappointed me, as it likely disappointed many of you. It was remarkably unremarkable. He said what you would expect someone in his position to say, and no more. And while I agree with what he said, in the need for the sea change that will make space a destination driven by commercial forces rather than governmental ones, I think we all hoped President Obama would challenge us as President Kennedy once had, to “choose… in this decade… [to go to Mars and do the other] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our [global] energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…” President Obama had that opportunity, and it looked like he was going to take it; but, he didn’t. While it does not constitute sufficient evidence as yet, the heightened interest being shown in my services in the week leading up to the President’s speech has fallen off markedly. I’ve not received a single contact today or yesterday, compared with the daily calls I had been getting. I cannot but pause and wonder if something changed. Perhaps Obama had another Kennedy-esque speech he planned to deliver, along the lines I originally suggested, but he found it necessary to abort it at the last minute. And if so, what could have altered that course, what could have muted those loftier ambitions?

A more conspiracy minded person than I might believe the answer is found in the Great Midwest Light Show of the night before his speech. They might compare that event to the very different but similarly impressive lights above Norway before Obama’s Nobel Prize speech. They might suggest the fireball seen by hundreds of thousands was a message meant for the President, a repeated reminder to him that others wield great and unopposable power, that others did not agree with his more ambitious plan for space, and for the disclosures which may come from such a program.

It’s a pity I’m not more conspiratorially minded.


My Space Summit Bet

April 13, 2010

As many of you know, President Obama heads to Kennedy tomorrow to reveal his vision for the US space program. NASA lost that vision back in late January when Obama released his budget to congress and the Constellation program which was to take us back to the moon by 2020 went unfunded. Left in serious jeopardy, too, were the Ares launch vehicles meant to replace the shuttle and take us to the International Space Station and then on to the moon. (I blame ATK more for putting Ares in jeopardy than Obama, but that’s a whole different topic.)

Ever since the late January budget everyone has been wondering what NASA would do, what its new mission really would be. The White House and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden tried to put a happy face on things and express excitement that we would be returning the focus to near-Earth science while we encourage the move towards more commercial development of space vehicles and technology. But few were satisfied with that direction and many, including former astronauts and moon walkers, were openly rebelling. With that as a backdrop it was announced that Obama would hold this soon to be historic space summit. Everyone whose life revolves around NASA wants to know what Obama will say. Has he radically changed his mind? Or have we just not understood the vision behind his budget?

I have some ideas.

Just before the budget was released in January there was an uptick in the number of calls I was getting about my consulting services. I have resumes in some of the aerospace consulting databases and I usually field 2-3 calls a week from possible clients and at least 1 a week from a recruiter. Most of the calls are full of sound and fury signifying nothing. The jobs aren’t appropriate to my skills and the recruiters don’t have any idea what they’re really looking for. Suddenly a week or so before the January budget the volume of inquiries doubled, and they began to get more focused. Suddenly I started to get calls from people who knew what they were looking for. The volume stayed high for most of February before returning to an elevated and stable 3-5 calls a week, and 1-2 recruiters a week. And so it continued until last week. Once again, about a week before a major space-related announcement, the volume of people contacting me has gone up, only this time, way up! In the last week I must have fielded about 15 calls, of which there were at least 5 recruiters. And the most fascinating thing is, again, many of these contacts were very specific in what they were looking for. So far this week the trend continues.

I had suspected Obama’s budget signaled an intriguing and significant shift, that his aim was to privatize the new space race, to make the space program a commercial success many of us Americans could indirectly benefit from (while some, like myself, directly benefited). The calls I was getting seemed to back up that notion. Clearly quite a few companies were gearing up for something, or at least putting out feelers to ensure that they would be able to secure the resources they’d need when the starting gun was fired in this new race.

Here are some things I’ve noticed about the calls I’ve been getting:

  • My resume lists my involvement in several Mars projects (not MER). Many of the contacts over the last week have expressed significant interest in this involvement, despite my rather significant involvement in other work, work which is arguably far more significant. This has been unusual.
  • My resume has for twenty years listed my foreign languages: French and Spanish. In all of those years I don’t think any prospective employer or HR person looking to get me on a project has ever actually mentioned that one line item on my resume. Twice in the last week I have been asked to clarify my fluency in French and Spanish. This has been unusual.
  • My career has placed me at several NASA centers, but it has never placed me overseas. The space program here has always been fairly insular, despite some token ventures with other nations. Twice in the last week I was asked if I would be able to relocate overseas. This has been unusual.
  • My background includes a good deal of design related to creating autonomous systems, machines that do their work somewhat independent of our direct guidance, often because they will be at such a distance from Earth that direct guidance is impossible or impractical. A handful of the callers seemed to express significant interest in this background. This has been unusual.

Clearly the people who are calling me think they know something. I have no way of knowing if they truly do have insider information about what’s coming or whether they are just making educated guesses. Surely if Obama was planning a major shift his policy people would have needed to reach out to those companies and industries likely to be affected and learn if those companies and industries would be ready to meet his new policy goals. Perhaps this is how and why they think they know something.

If I had to bet (and I wouldn’t bet much, since I don’t have much to go on)…

President Obama will announce significant incentivization of the private space technology sector, enlisting the help of prominent figures and companies to do so, laying out an ambitious long term course to Mars, and the short term democratization of near-Earth travel. His plan will focus on commercializing space, making it profitable and growth-oriented, and making it something we all will be able to visit within our lifetime. He will seize on this as an opportunity to unite all the nations of Earth through a common goal and a forged common history, enlisting the aide of RKA, ESA, JAXA, CNSA , and ISRO, and encouraging their own nation’s private space technology growth.

If anyone wants to bet $5 on it, let me know.


UPDATE 4/15/2010:

Transcript of Obama’s Speech

I conceded I lost the bet.  I owe blog poster Carol’s charity $5.

President Obama hit on a few points I’d said he would, the focus on a long term Mars mission and the major incentivization of the private aerospace sector.  However, he didn’t hit on creating a unified international effort as my deductions led me to suspect, nor did he invoke the chicken-in-every-pot-esque vision of all us Americans getting the opportunity to ride into space within our lifetimes.  Ah well, I warned everyone it was a risky bet.  Still, I remain stubbornly a bit surprised.