Recently I spent some time surrounded by people who are smarter than I am, who are braver and more committed to human progress, who know more about science and technology, more about business and industry, and more about budgets and expenditures.
This is an experience Congress and the White House should have. Except Congress and the White House have this experience every day. And me too, but at least I know when it’s happening.
It was happening with unusual intensity last month in Colorado Springs at the 29th National Space Symposium. This is the biggest and most important annual worldwide gathering of the biggest and most important organizations and entities in the biggest and most important industry in the solar system. The biggest, certainly, in terms of reach. What other enterprise has sent employees on a 238,900-mile business trip to the moon? And the most important industry in the solar system by definition. No other industry is out there. The rest of the working world is stuck on Earth.
The Space Symposium Big Bang was the result of an astrophysical singularity called the Space Foundation, a global nonprofit established in 1983 “to advance space-related endeavors to inspire, enable and propel humanity.” That is, to get people to look up and go “aww” instead of look down and go “eww.”
The Space Foundation cosmos expanded rapidly. By now the corporate, governmental, civilian, and military galaxy of its annual symposium encompasses supernovas of luminary speakers, quasars of radiant panel discussions, constellations of participants from more than 30 nations, magnetic fields of 160 exhibitors, and 9,000 attendees in orbit. Senior management gravitational pull was felt from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon, ATK, Arianespace, General Dynamics, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and scores of other corporations of great mass and magnitude. A Perseids meteor shower of astronauts was seen—Buzz Aldrin included. And from the firmament of our armed forces did shine the brightest stars, some with four of them on their shoulders.
One evening I had the privilege of sitting at dinner with General William Shelton, commander, U.S. Air Force Space Command. Alas, the only launch capabilities about which I have any technical knowledge involve golf clubs. We discussed payload targeting frustrations on the links, and Gen. Shelton gave a polite hearing to my theory that if we dumped all the other clubs and just carried a 5 iron we might play a better game.
“Putting included?” asked Gen. Shelton.
“Putting included,” I said, glad to be able to answer a technical question.
I got to meet Gen. Shelton because I serve on the Space Foundation’s board of directors, although my only qualification for doing so is a kind of clownish enthusiasm about outer space. Over the years I have tried to fulfill my civic duty, aiding in the functions of various worthy organizations, this magazine for example. Somebody has to tie the balloon animals.
But at the National Space Symposium the joke was the U.S. government. Here was the world’s foremost congregation of people and things having to do with space, and who didn’t show up? NASA.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration itself shouldn’t be blamed. The Air Force might not have been at the Space Symposium either, if it weren’t for Space Command’s being based in Colorado Springs and its brass willing to drive their own cars across town
and pay for the gas.
Sequester has every government agency trying not to look wasteful. This means all of them are going undercover in deep disguise. Knock on the door of NASA headquarters and they’ll probably tell you the initials stand for “Nation’s Abstemious Spending Advisory—go away, we’re counting nickels!” Also, civil service muck-a-mucks are still sensitive about the 2010 GSA $822,751 conference beano in Las Vegas. Never mind that those government employee partygoers were stimulating the economy in a city that bore the full brunt of the ’09 recession and were also, at least temporarily, too busy and snozzled to spend the rest of the General Services Administration’s $26.3 billion annual budget, so it was a win-win situation all around for the public.
Government travel to any kind of meeting has been on a short tether. You’ll recall our ambassador to Libya had a meeting with an angry group of armed fanatics at Benghazi last year, and the U.S. government didn’t send extra personnel.