The New Age of Space Advocacy: Enter the Professionals

Quite a lothas changed at the National Space Society's International Space DevelopmentConference (ISDC) in the last ten years. In 1998, it was still not uncommon tosee lecturers--especially in the scientific tracks--working from black-and-whitetransparencies on overhead projectors. Individuals describing new orbitalspacecraft did not always have a business plan or--as Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, ISDC 2006's co-sponsor, put it atthis year's conference, a "failure plan." What a difference ten years makes.

Business-like Advocacy

Overhead projectorswere 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 ruledthe day. This year, the science tracks had some of the bestpresentations--especially the Japanese Hayabusa team's report--which featuredPowerPoint, graphs, and multimedia animations of their mission. The appearanceof computerized presentations and real-world, practical content, ISDC presentersreflect a greater maturity and professionalism in space advocacy activities.

Along withthe presentations, conference management practices are growing moreprofessional as well, as previous conference managers share best practices withsubsequent conferences. Much of this information sharing, of course, is aresult of email and the Web, but the desire to put on high-quality conferences demandsan environment for sharing "best practices" and institutional knowledge, whichthe advocacy community has badly needed.

Another promisingphenomenon has been the arrival of consultants. These individuals are advisingspace advocates on the nuts and bolts of lobbying (the now-annual NSSLegislative Blitz); the political realities of dealing with Washington (JimMuncy's PoliSpace); the details of partnering with NASA (by David Schuman,Goddard Spaceflight Center's Office of the Chief Counsel); and the businessrealities of starting up new companies (as witnessed by the addition of theSpace Venturing Forum to this year's ISDC). Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic informedconference participants that they employ a professional public relationsconsultant to manage their media relations. Most of the new rocket companieshave Web sites to handle public and media inquiries. In all these ways, ISDC sessionshave moved from the theoretical to the practical.

Cutting-Edge Marketing

Virgin hasalso added Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to its brand by creating adiscrete group of customers called the "Virgin Galactic Founders." The Founderscomprise 100 people, who are guaranteed to fly on the first 100 commercialseats. These individuals get special access to the project and serve asambassadors for Virgin. Hotels and tourist destinations like Walt Disney Worldoffer similar programs to their most frequent visitors to make them feel special,ensure repeat business, and generate word-of-mouth exposure.

EricAnderson of Space Adventures says that his company isn't in the space business:"What we're about is providing space experiences." Targeted experiences will aboundat 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. PeterDiamandis envisions a child getting to press "the big red button" for every launchfor a life-changing "wow" experience. This is the sort of marketingsophistication the space tourism business is going to need as it begins "to getoff the ground," both literally and figuratively. CRM programs and marketingsavvy, combined with a high-value and safe product, will help sustain thisgrowing industry in the years to come.

Developing Political Savvy

The spaceentrepreneurs themselves have become more sophisticated in their political tactics.Amir Ansari, whose family sponsors the X-Prize, suggested that there is adisconnect between venture capitalists (VCs) and aerospace people--with bothcommunities needing to learn each other's language. Slowly but surely, thatprocess appears to be happening. The emergence of professional lobbyists is anabsolute requirement now, as the federal government has jurisdiction over moreand more activities.

Anothereffective strategy advocates are pursuing is finding allies within competinggovernment agencies and levels of government. The state of New Mexico hasapproached Virgin Galactic (VG) to build a spaceport, while Patricia GraceSmith from the Federal Aviation Administration's Administrator for CommercialSpace Transportation (FAA AST) advises startup rocket companies to consult withAST to see how government can help them through the regulation process. Virgin Galactic'sWil Whitehorn says that VG is now in frequent discussions with federal andstate governments to maintain that relationship.

Anotherstep toward professionalizing and legitimizing the space tourism industry isforming an industry trade association. The group in this case is the PersonalSpaceflight Association (PSA). PSA is akin to the International StandardsOrganization (ISO), which sets standards and practices for technologymanagement. The advantage of ISO and the PSA is that they act as a form selfregulation. If private space firms can set their own standards via the PSA, theywould provide a "seal of approval" to their services, akin to the UnderwritersLaboratories (UL) tag on an electrical appliance or "ISO 9000 Certified" on acompany's stationery.

Perhaps themost important advantage of self-regulation is that it avoidsgovernment-imposed regulations which, as Burt Rutan noted at ISDC, can often bewritten 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 thatit is better to self-limit up front and suggest guidelines than to go forwardunregulated and then have their operations cut back after the fact.

What ishappening is a gradual transformation from advocates talking about what theywould like to see happen to actually making it happen.

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.

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