Space Symposium rises to a global event

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We just concluded the Space Foundation’s 29th National Space Symposium and, despite a very difficult ramp-up, it was successful beyond our imagination. I’ll run through just a few themes that emerged during the week:

U.S. government challenges: First, the Space Symposium underscored that, as a nation, we need to resolve our budget disputes and delays so that government agencies can get their work done effectively and efficiently. Sequestration and related budget restrictions severely curtailed attendance by federal government agencies and the military.

As unbelievable as it seems, NASA was completely absent from the most important space gathering of the year. Very few out-of-town U.S. military were allowed to attend. Also, many agencies and departments canceled or limited attendance.

With the robust discussion that occurred at the Space Symposium, it was more their loss than ours. This event is famous for networking, high-level business discussions and the ability to efficiently pull together hard-to-arrange meetings of very busy influential people from around the globe.

It’s a once-a-year opportunity that they missed. And, still, business went on.

I cannot discuss this situation without offering my deep, deep gratitude to Air Force Space Command — headquartered right here in Colorado Springs — for their cooperation and perseverance in getting as many Air Force personnel here as possible. Gen. William Shelton made involvement a priority and it showed in both his personal involvement and that of his command.

Plus, we convey our sincere thanks to Patrick Meehan, R-Pa.; C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger. D-Md.; U.S. Strategic Command Commander Gen. C. Robert Kehler, USAF; Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell for their engagement and contributions.

With the support of so many, we actually had slightly higher government attendance than in previous years!

Global involvement: While the U.S. government played a lesser role this year, global space was bigger than ever. We had representation from at least 30 nations — we’re still sorting through the data — many of them at exceptionally high levels, including space agency heads. Global involvement was reflected everywhere: the United Nations Space Generation Advisory Council Fusion Forum held immediately before the Space Symposium, the multiple large exhibits featuring agencies and companies from other nations, the wide diversity of speakers and the general makeup of the attendees to the international composition of our Space Technology Hall of Fame® judges and inductees, to name a few.

It was impossible to miss the fact that space is global and the Space Symposium is where that global organization gathers.

Growth: Our attendance was roughly the same as last year, which, considering government sequestration issues, actually reflects the growth we are seeing in the global space industry. (Attendance also reflects the unfortunate fact that, while global space is growing, U.S. space is not.)

The growth we saw this year was multi-faceted: more non-U.S. entities, a broader range of space businesses reflecting the growing applications and value of space assets, more commercial space businesses and more subcontractors serving the space industry.

The future: Throughout the entire week, speakers and attendees were focused on a rapidly evolving future filled with both challenges and opportunities. We frequently heard about concerns for the next generation of space leaders and the need to improve science, technology, engineering and math skills.

We saw lots of examples of programs aimed at this goal — including our own Space Foundation Space Symposium education programs that touched more than 1,000 students and almost 100 teachers. There was ample discussion of the Space Foundation’s recent report, PIONEERING: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space, that recommends that NASA adopt pioneering as its single, sharply focused purpose.

Plus, we saw evidence of serious plans to move humans out of low Earth orbit to distant destinations such as the moon, asteroids and Mars, perhaps kindling a renewed interest in space travel and exploration.

Our community: This year’s Space Symposium had some of the richest community involvement we have ever seen. From the more than 350 primarily local volunteers to special tours and programs for community leaders to programs for local schools to the more than $25 million in economic contribution to the Front Range, we come out of this event feeling more connected to our hometown than ever before.

Our future: This was our last National Space Symposium. Next year, our 30th, we will change our name to simply Space Symposium. It’s fairly clear why — this has become the foremost space gathering in the world.

We had some tough weeks leading up to the Space Symposium as the impact of sequestration unfurled. But the outcome buoyed our spirits: We spent a week with passionate advocates for advancing space-related endeavors to inspire, enable and propel humanity (yes, that is our mission — but it is also what we believe).

And, once again, we saw that the Space Foundation right here in Colorado Springs is looked upon throughout the world as the preeminent organization for making that happen.

Elliot Pulham has served as chief executive officer of the Space Foundation since 2001.