Swirl of emotions on display at Space Symposium

Filed under: Aerospace/Defense,Daily News |

Currents of uncertainty, a little fear and some anger ran beneath the glitz and glamour of the after-parties at the Space Symposium last week.

The tension was especially palpable at the high-tech displays in the exhibit hall, some of which showed models of technology that won’t be needed any longer as NASA ended its shuttle program and tabled the Constellation project.

NASA’s much-touted new direction was met with skepticism by many in the industry, despite upbeat speeches by both Lori Garver and Charles Bolden of NASA.

Primarily, people wondered if industry could step in where government left off, and even more mused over the future of American space superiority, despite touting the military and civilian applications of their technology.

Is there enough private capital to boost the space industry? Panelists at various sessions said proven customers would have to be found outside the government before Wall Street steps in with money to back expensive, risky space projects.

Meanwhile, the presence of the Chinese made some people nervous, although others saw it as an opportunity. China sent its first human-operated spacecraft into orbit in 2006, and the country is clearly poised to expand its presence in space.

While NASA is seen as blundering around without clear goals or directions, China is certain of where it wants to go: the moon. But the nation is still decades behind the United States.

Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, repeatedly asked for cooperation between nations because space travel “benefits all mankind.”

Others echoed the sentiment.

“The United States has all this expertise, but very limited resources,” said Richard Garriott, one of the first “tourists” in space. “But China has nearly unlimited resources, and very little experience. It seems we could work together.”

Others, however, whispered in their seats, saying that cooperating with the Chinese could lead to a loss of classified military information. The general feeling: the Chinese government cannot be trusted with America’s space technology.

For others, the problem is more tangible and immediate — debris that is clogging near-space close to earth. Both the Russians and the Chinese are adding to the problem — and doing nothing about it, they said.

“Nothing will be done either, until something bad, something big happens in Europe,” said one observer. “Then we’ll see some changes.”

The United States has fallen behind Europe in launching satellites, and even as near-space becomes an international landfill of old, worn out, broken space junk, more satellites are needed to fulfill both military and civilian missions.

The National Reconnaissance Organization is planning its most aggressive satellite launch system in years, hoping to spur industrial activity in the arena. But there are worries in an era of tightly constrained budgets that the industrial base won’t be able to respond, said director Bruce Carlson.

Officials throughout the government clearly are seeking to ease industry fears and create new paths that allow industry to take on a much more expanded role in space exploration.

But uncertain government budgets and a wary Wall Street create an aura of uncertainty that even the best party couldn’t drown out.

Harris wins

By day, Harris Corp. is responsible for military and satellite communications.

But for a single night at The Broadmoor, the defense contractor went solid gold, taking over the Grand Ballroom, and spinning the latest and greatest rock and roll hits.

Women were given red and black feather boas, while the men sported sunglasses in the shapes of guitars and stars. The company sported its “greatest hits” with gold records on the wall.

It was, hands down, my favorite party. Of course, most of the large companies present — Boeing and Raytheon, among them — held open parties during the symposium. Great places for networking, the parties were also a great place for good food and drink.

One party featured vodka and caviar tasting, which explains the line that wound around the outdoor patio, where the Colorado Springs Astronomy Club had its telescopes trained on Saturn and Mars.

While a good time was had by most, if not all, many said the parties were a little subdued this year — partly because of the recession and partly because of the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the symposium this year.

Amy Gillentine can be reached at amy.gillentine@csbj.com or at 719-329-5205.