It is misleading to think of today's "space program" as a single-source activity with NASA as the center of the universe. First of all, the multi-nation character of space exploration has long dethroned that notion.

In the history of space exploration, the solar system has never seen the diversity of spacecraft from various countries either now on duty at their respective targets or en route to distant destinations.

Moreover, space is also a frontier for visionary entrepreneurs--of blue-sky schemers and those people who like to tinker with tomorrow.

The 25th annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC) can be considered a landmark meeting for space, bringing together a diversity of interests that will shape the 21st century in terms of exploration, space commerce, and off-Earth settlement.

Co-sponsored by the National Space Society and The Planetary Society, ISDC is being held May 4-7 in Los Angeles, California. The conference theme is "Exploring New Worlds." 

A transition moment

"This is clearly a transition moment for the world of space," said George Whitesides, Executive Director of the National Space Society. As NASA pivots toward the Moon and Mars, private entrepreneurs are proving that they can build real vehicles for tourists and cargo, he said.

Whitesides said that this year's ISDC will be an event at which these two trends crest together--with the entrepreneurial community making a full showing among NASA leaders and scientists. "As such, it represents that transition in space today. The next phase of space development will see the intermingling of these two trends," is his forecast.

Furthermore, ISDC can be viewed as a snapshot in time; a space "happening", Whitesides explained. It is a moment in time when the world of space gathers, and that moment is held in everyone's memory, he told SPACE.com.

ISDC will offer dozens of provocative presentations over the course of four days:  From sneak previews of the next generation of spacecraft, building the space elevator, to protecting the Earth from asteroids and the needed steps required to land humans on Mars.

Along with a broad spectrum of talks by leaders in space exploration and development, ISDC will feature a children's program for families, a space art exhibition, a special session on international lunar exploration, showings of space films, and a thirty-foot space elevator mockup.

Educated and vocal

Given the current NASA budget panic, how important is it for space advocacy groups to become educated, as well as vocal?

"ISDC will be the launch pad for the next Space Exploration Alliance Capitol Hill space blitz in June," Whitesides responded. "There will not be a single platform or agenda at ISDC and people attending will see the full range of opinion on the future of space."

On the one hand, the ISDC is useful to amplify public support for human space exploration of the Moon and Mars. But ISDC will also shine needed attention on the science cuts that NASA has been forced into, Whitesides added.

"Joining with the National Space Society to provide additional opportunity for the space-interested public to be involved is important now," explained Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California.

"The attack on science, perpetrated in the Administration's 2007 budget proposal, puts the ISDC and space interest generally at a crossroads for future space exploration," Friedman told SPACE.com. "I hope we can help get us on the right path." 

Gutsy entrepreneurs and adventurers

While ISDC is a meeting of the minds, it's also a gathering of forward-thinking, gutsy entrepreneurs and adventurers.

A special Space Venturing Forum on May 4 will feature the leaders of the new world of space tourism and entrepreneurial space, such as Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, and SpaceX. Following the Forum, a star-studded ORBIT Awards Dinner will celebrate the pioneers of personal spaceflight and mark the 5th anniversary of Dennis Tito's historic flight - spotlighting his privately paid space trek via a Russian Soyuz booster to the International Space Station.

Over the last several years, much has happened that can be considered "Space Venturing", said David Knight, Executive Producer of the Space Venturing Forum being held at the ISDC. Knight is chief executive officer for Big Moving Pictures, Inc. of Malibu, California.

Space venturing achievements range from the achievement of suborbital flight by the SpaceShipOne team to the development of the Falcon delivery system by SpaceX, Knight advised.

"Our goal is to provide an annual forum where entrepreneurs, investors, aerospace professionals and those who dream of 'what's possible' can gather and learn from each other," Knight told SPACE.com

Knight said that ISDC provides an ideal vehicle for the expansion of the Space Venturing Forum. "We have hundreds of executives, entrepreneurs, inventors, government officials and contractors, and true pioneers of past and present advents in commercial spaceflight that are gathering in Los Angeles," he noted.

Space tourism: real and growing

Showcasing the Space Venturing Forum at ISDC is a natural and ideal fit, Knight said, given the rapidly-forming new commercial space business and marketplace.

"If you consider that we have gone from nobody heading to space for tourism and industrial opportunity, to dozens of companies building almost overnight in those markets," Knight said, "there is a significant need for a conference-event to bring all of the involved and interested parties together."

The theme of the overall ISDC is a celebration of solid progress and optimism for the future, said John Spencer, Founder and President of the Space Tourism Society (STS) in Los Angeles, California that is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

The National Space Society has partnered with the Space Tourism Society to present the 2006 ORBIT Awards Dinner on the opening night of ISDC."Our ORBIT Awards produced by Allison Dollar will push forward new participants and industries interest and involvement with space enterprise and tourism. Our awards are focused on the off-world experience and lifestyle rather than access," Spencer told SPACE.com.

"Having been involved with the space tourism movement and industry since the beginning--in the early 1980s--I have seen the evolution of a concept from start to entering into a phase where several very smart billionaires are investing millions of their own dollars into it ... and the government and media takes it seriously," Spencer said. "Space enterprise and tourism is real and growing."

The ISDC represents a stellar gathering of astronauts, space entrepreneurs, scientists, and visionaries--and the welcome mat is open for all.

For more information, visit: http://www.isdc2006.com

Leonard David is a Senior Space Writer for SPACE.com and the former editor of Ad Astra, the official magazine of the National Space Society

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

Visit SPACE.com/Ad Astra Online for more news, views and scientific inquiry from the National Space Society.