Quite a lot has changed at the National Space Society's International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in the last ten years. In 1998, it was still not uncommon to see lecturers--especially in the scientific tracks--working from black-and-white transparencies on overhead projectors. Individuals describing new orbital spacecraft did not always have a business plan or--as Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, ISDC 2006's co-sponsor, put it at this year's conference, a "failure plan." What a difference ten years makes.
Overhead projectors were kept on standby for the 2005 ISDC in case anyone still wanted to do things "the old-fashioned way," but PowerPoint, projectors, CD-ROMs, and laptops ruled the day. This year, the science tracks had some of the best presentations--especially the Japanese Hayabusa team's report--which featured PowerPoint, graphs, and multimedia animations of their mission. The appearance of computerized presentations and real-world, practical content, ISDC presenters reflect a greater maturity and professionalism in space advocacy activities.
Along with the presentations, conference management practices are growing more professional as well, as previous conference managers share best practices with subsequent conferences. Much of this information sharing, of course, is a result of email and the Web, but the desire to put on high-quality conferences demands an environment for sharing "best practices" and institutional knowledge, which the advocacy community has badly needed.
Another promising phenomenon has been the arrival of consultants. These individuals are advising space advocates on the nuts and bolts of lobbying (the now-annual NSS Legislative Blitz); the political realities of dealing with Washington (Jim Muncy's PoliSpace); the details of partnering with NASA (by David Schuman, Goddard Spaceflight Center's Office of the Chief Counsel); and the business realities of starting up new companies (as witnessed by the addition of the Space Venturing Forum to this year's ISDC). Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic informed conference participants that they employ a professional public relations consultant to manage their media relations. Most of the new rocket companies have Web sites to handle public and media inquiries. In all these ways, ISDC sessions have moved from the theoretical to the practical.
Virgin has also added Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to its brand by creating a discrete group of customers called the "Virgin Galactic Founders." The Founders comprise 100 people, who are guaranteed to fly on the first 100 commercial seats. These individuals get special access to the project and serve as ambassadors for Virgin. Hotels and tourist destinations like Walt Disney World offer similar programs to their most frequent visitors to make them feel special, ensure repeat business, and generate word-of-mouth exposure.
Eric Anderson of Space Adventures says that his company isn't in the space business: "What we're about is providing space experiences." Targeted experiences will abound at the X-Prize Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico this October. On the ground, people will get hands-on time with spaceships, robots, and simulators. Peter Diamandis envisions a child getting to press "the big red button" for every launch for a life-changing "wow" experience. This is the sort of marketing sophistication the space tourism business is going to need as it begins "to get off the ground," both literally and figuratively. CRM programs and marketing savvy, combined with a high-value and safe product, will help sustain this growing industry in the years to come.
Developing Political Savvy
The space entrepreneurs themselves have become more sophisticated in their political tactics. Amir Ansari, whose family sponsors the X-Prize, suggested that there is a disconnect between venture capitalists (VCs) and aerospace people--with both communities needing to learn each other's language. Slowly but surely, that process appears to be happening. The emergence of professional lobbyists is an absolute requirement now, as the federal government has jurisdiction over more and more activities.
Another effective strategy advocates are pursuing is finding allies within competing government agencies and levels of government. The state of New Mexico has approached Virgin Galactic (VG) to build a spaceport, while Patricia Grace Smith from the Federal Aviation Administration's Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) advises startup rocket companies to consult with AST to see how government can help them through the regulation process. Virgin Galactic's Wil Whitehorn says that VG is now in frequent discussions with federal and state governments to maintain that relationship.
Another step toward professionalizing and legitimizing the space tourism industry is forming an industry trade association. The group in this case is the Personal Spaceflight Association (PSA). PSA is akin to the International Standards Organization (ISO), which sets standards and practices for technology management. The advantage of ISO and the PSA is that they act as a form self regulation. If private space firms can set their own standards via the PSA, they would provide a "seal of approval" to their services, akin to the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) tag on an electrical appliance or "ISO 9000 Certified" on a company's stationery.
Perhaps the most important advantage of self-regulation is that it avoids government-imposed regulations which, as Burt Rutan noted at ISDC, can often be written by people who know nothing about the space business. As Rutan put it, "Government needs to know what to allow." Most new businesses would agree that it is better to self-limit up front and suggest guidelines than to go forward unregulated and then have their operations cut back after the fact.
What is happening is a gradual transformation from advocates talking about what they would like to see happen to actually making it happen.
- ISDC 2006: Exploring New Worlds
- Private Space Companies Forge Ahead Despite Failures
- Rutan Takes Aim at NASA's CEV Plans, Likens it to 'Archeology'
- NASA, X Prize Foundation Shoot For the Moon
- Space Access: The Private Investment vs. Public Funding Debate
Bart Leahy is a technical writer and National Space Society member living in Alexandria, Virginia.
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.