Reusable Rockets to Rocket Simulators: 2017 National Space Symposium Highlights

Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, spoke at the 33rd annual Space Symposium on April 5, 2017.
Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, spoke at the 33rd annual Space Symposium on April 5, 2017. (Image credit: Space Foundation/Tom Kimmel Photography.)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — From the National Space Council's return to women in space, the 33rd annual Space Symposium brought some fascinating space topics to light. The event took place this week (April 3-6), bringing together thousands of people representing all aspects of the space industry. Here is a roundup of interesting items from the gathering.

Gwynne Shotwell on reusability and women in spaceflight

Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of Elon Musk's private spaceflight company, SpaceX, spoke briefly about the company's progress on reusable rockets. She also addressed the continued underrepresentation of women in the space industry workforce.

Showtwell presented a quote from Bella Abzug, a human rights activist who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977. (The quote uses the word "schlemiel," which is a Yiddish word meaning an awkward or unlucky person prone to failure.)

"Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel," Abzug is quoted as saying.

Shotwell said the quote highlighted that while the number of women leaders in the industry is increasing, "that's not the end game." Instead, she said the goal was to have equality on every level in the industry. She then provided another quote, this one from a female cab driver Shotwell spoke with that week.

"[She was] an African-American woman, raising six kids as a single mom, and she said, 'The only way women make it in this world is if they're 200 times better than the men,'" Shotwell said to the audience. "So, I just want you to think about that."

SpaceX made history last week when it successfully launched and landed a first-stage Falcon 9 rocket booster that had already flown a mission last year. The company has been pursuing the goal of reusable rocket boosters for its entire 15-year history, Shotwell said, and the second flight of the booster represents a significant step for the company. However, Shotwell also noted that the booster was re-flown months after its first flight, and said the company is pursuing a much faster turnaround schedule for its reusable boosters.

"We think it doesn't really count unless you can turn it around basically as quickly as you can turn around an aircraft," Shotwell said.

Steering a spaceship

Two spacecraft simulators on display at the Space Symposium exhibit hall allowed visitors to try their hands at flying NASA's Orion human spacecraft and the Boeing CST-100 Starliner human spacecraft.

The CST-100 Starliner is scheduled to ferry humans to the space station as early as 2018. The Starliner simulator included a mock-up of the CST-100 crew cabin, complete with three passenger seats, a very realistic-looking console covered in switches and buttons, and a window providing a view of the space station.

A simulator of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner lets users attempt to dock the craft with the International Space Station. (Image credit: Calla Cofield/

Users are challenged to pilot the spacecraft and dock it with the space station using a joystick to steer or accelerate, with guidance from digital diagrams that show the craft's position in relation to the station. One of the screens shows a face-on view of the station, and users try to align the spacecraft's docking portal with the station's docking hatch (indicated by a white cross and a purple triangle). A Boeing representative said about 3 percent to 4 percent of people who try the simulator fail to complete the docking.

The simulator is not the same as those used by actual astronauts in training, the representative said, but it "brings the best" of the real simulator to the public. The simulator will be traveling the country and appearing at various events where members of the public can give the experience a spin. Its next stop is Houston for the FIRST Robotics Championship in April, and eventually to Florida, the company representative said. Announcements about the simulator's next location typically appear on the Boeing Defense Twitter account.

Meanwhile, across the symposium's showroom floor, Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor for NASA's Orion space capsule, displayed a mock Orion console with a simulation program. Participants attempted to dock Orion with the Mars Base Camp, a space station proposed by the company that would orbit the Red Planet ahead of sending humans to the surface. A failed docking caused the program to release a startlingly loud screeching/crashing sound.

A simulator of NASA's Orion spacecraft lets users attempt to dock the craft with a space station orbiting Mars. (Image credit: Calla Cofield/

The Orion simulator is the same one used by Lockheed to test how the spacecraft's main computer displays information for astronauts. Because the simulator has a professional role to play, it will make fewer public appearances than the Boeing Starliner simulator, a Lockheed Martin representative told

Upcoming satellite constellation could have found lost Malaysian airlines flight

At a panel on using satellites to assist with maritime monitoring, a group of experts agreed that a new satellite constellation called Iridium NEXT could have located the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which went missing over the Pacific Ocean in March 2014.

The Iridium NEXT constellation is an upgrade to Iridium's current satellite constellation. The first 10 satellites in the planned 70-satellite constellation were launched into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in January.

Some of the instruments on board the Iridium NEXT satellites make up the AppSTAR platform created by the Harris Corporation. The technology in these instruments isn't revolutionary; they simply receive GPS signals from transmitters that are placed on boats and airplanes, and send that information back to users on the ground, a Harris representative told But the Iridium NEXT constellation will ultimately allow those instruments to receive signals from a vehicle anywhere on Earth, 24 hours a day, according to the company.

The people using the system can receive signals once per minute, with a delay of less than 1 second, as opposed to the current lag time of anywhere from 6 minutes to 30 minutes, said David Mottarella, senior manager of maritime geospatial solutions, space and intelligence systems at Harris.

In the case of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, had the AppSTAR instruments all been operating in orbit, and had the plane contained the right transmitter on board, "we would have been able to track that flight to its entry into the ocean," Mottarella said.

"This is not a technology issue," said the panel moderator, Thad Allen, who recently retired from his position as executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

The applications for the AppSTAR platform are wide-ranging. Mottarella spoke primarily about the need to monitor cargo on the ocean.

"Ninety percent of the world's trade happens on the open oceans," Mottarella said. That includes the movement of crude oil, dry goods and fish. "Clearly, the safety and security and knowing where those elements are out on the ocean is a big problem."

Mottarella said AppSTAR could also help tackle problems like illegal fishing, because the system could be used to track the location of fishing vessels and monitor activity in areas where fishing is prohibited. (The tracking devices that the AppSTAR system uses are required on all ocean vessels above a certain size, a Harris representative told

"The World Wildlife Federation estimates that $25 billion is lost each year in illegal fishing," Mottarella said. "About one-third of the fish coming into us comes from illegal or unreported fishing."

NASA center leaders comment on National Space Council

The directors of three different NASA centers spoke briefly about the Trump administration's reinstatement of a National Space Council (NSC) and how the move would affect NASA. The directors spoke during a panel discussion that featured a total of six leaders from different NASA centers.

A panel at the 33rd annual Space Symposium featured six leaders from six different NASA centers. Shown here (l to r), Ellen Ochoa, director of Johnson Space Center in Houston; Janet Kavandi director of Glenn Research Center in Cleveland; Michael Watkins, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; and panel moderator David Livingston, founder and host of The Space Show. (Image credit: Space Foundation/Tom Kimmel Photography)

In the past, the NSC has served to advise presidents on space matters, but the last council was dissolved in 1993. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who will chair the NSC, has said that the council's other members may include representatives from NASA and the commercial spaceflight industry.

"NASA has operated effectively with a space council, and it's operated, I think, effectively without a space council," said Ellen Ochoa, a former astronaut and director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We're going to work together as an overall agency with the leadership at [NASA] headquarters to understand how we can be most effective in working with a space council."  

Todd May, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, mentioned a report by the Aerospace Corporation that analyzed the effectiveness of previous iterations of the NSC.

Addressing the question of whether the NSC's revival would be a good thing or a bad thing for NASA, May added, "As an engineer I'd say it probably depends on how you set it up. But as a center director, to some extent, we're shielded from a lot of that."

May was referring to the fact that these center directors typically don't deal directly with orders coming down from Washington; that work is typically handled by the top NASA leadership at the agency's headquarters in Washington D.C.. "We have missions to do. We have hardware to build. [The NSC] may affect us, but it affects us through orders we get from our bosses," May said.

Michael Watkins, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that a space council operating in 2017 will deal with a much larger space industry than one operating in 1993 did. A national space council could help "make us more efficient as a nation with how we invest in space," he said.

"I think it can be a good thing," Watkins said. "But I think, as Todd [May] said, it depends on how you do it. And setting it up in an efficient way is critical."

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Calla Cofield
Senior Writer

Calla Cofield joined's crew in October 2014. She enjoys writing about black holes, exploding stars, ripples in space-time, science in comic books, and all the mysteries of the cosmos. Prior to joining Calla worked as a freelance writer, with her work appearing in APS News, Symmetry magazine, Scientific American, Nature News, Physics World, and others. From 2010 to 2014 she was a producer for The Physics Central Podcast. Previously, Calla worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (hands down the best office building ever) and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. Calla studied physics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is originally from Sandy, Utah. In 2018, Calla left to join NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory media team where she oversees astronomy, physics, exoplanets and the Cold Atom Lab mission. She has been underground at three of the largest particle accelerators in the world and would really like to know what the heck dark matter is. Contact Calla via: E-Mail – Twitter