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A Week of Space Tech

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Bill Nye Science Guy at Space Tech Expo
Bill Nye Science Guy under guard at the Space Tech Expo

On May 20 I left Chicago for Long Beach CA to attend the 2nd annual Space Tech Expo. My mission: to cover the conference for Ad Astra magazine. Additionally I wanted to gather information from speakers and exhibitors that I could use to enhance my "The NewSpace Frontier" presentation. I developed this talk in April and have so far given it at three venues to a combined audience of approximately 200 people.

The Space Tech Expo did not disappoint. One of the curious things about this conference was its two-tiered approach to registration. Only the main programming track required a paid registration. The other two programming tracks and the exhibits were all accessible with a free registration.

While some of the exhibitors were companies/organizations that space enthusiasts would recognize, like ATK, Boeing, XCOR, ZERO-G, Planetary Society, and Google Lunar XPrize; most of the 140-plus exhibitors were companies whose names are not well known but whose products are crucial to the success of the companies whose names we do know.

XCOR Lynx Mockup at Space Tech Expo
XCOR Lynx Mockup at Space Tech Expo

The centerpiece of the exhibit hall was a full-scale mockup of XCOR’s Lynx spacecraft. ZERO-G held a drawing for a free seat on one of their parabolic flights. Woe was me when I didn’t win.

I spent my time camped out in the Space Tech Conference, a separate "room" on the exhibit floor that hosted the main programming track – access to which required the paid registration. Unfortunately I could not be in two places at once as the Satellite and Space Summit track had much excellent programming as well. The third programming track – Open Tech Forum – was specialized to serve industry professionals by providing exhibitors the opportunity to present technical talks on their products and relevant innovations.

Space Tech Conference programming included presentations and panel discussions on the following areas:

  • Space tourism
  • Space commerce
  • Venture funding of space startups
  • Technology transfer opportunities
  • Military perspectives on space
  • NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Program
  • NASA Space Launch System (SLS)

In addition to the aforementioned topics, there were dedicated presentations by

  • Bas Lansdorp, founder of Mars One
  • Alan Stern, President and CEO of Golden Spike
  • Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express
  • Alexandra Hall, Senior Director, Google Lunar XPrize

Bas Lansdorp  Mars One
Bas Lansdorp, Mars One co-founder

I was elated to see friend, fellow Chicago Society for Space Studies member, and former fellow NSS Director Richard Godwin at the expo. Richard is President and CEO of Zero Gravity Solutions and was one of the conference’s featured speakers. Of the presentations I witnessed, Richard’s presentation on his company’s work with biotechnology and the use of the microgravity environment of space to manipulate plant and animal stem cells, without using genetic modification techniques, was the most fascinating of all, and potentially the most impactful on human society.

On the last day of the conference I headed over to the Satellite and Space Summit to catch Bill Nye’s ("The Science Guy" and Planetary Society CEO) presentation Asteroids Will Kill You! Know Your Place In Space. The most memorable single item from Nye’s presentation was the observation that an asteroid impact is the only preventable natural disaster.

The conference closed with a broadcast from the Open Tech Forum of Planetary Radio Live featuring:

  • Matt Kaplan, Planetary Radio Host
  • Michelle Peters, Zero-G Director of Research and Education
  • Andrew Nelson, XCOR Chief Operating Officer
  • Bill Nye, Planetary Society CEO

The two most interesting tidbits of information came from Mr. Nelson in answer to a question from the audience. First was that the first commercial flights of the Lynx could be as early as the end of 2014 and second that XCOR has no plans at this time for a manned orbital vehicle.

XCOR Lynx Mockup Cockpit at Space Tech Expo
At the controls of the XCOR Lynx Mockup at Space Tech Expo

The Space Tech Expo will be returning to the Long Beach Convention Center next year but will be held at the start of April. I don’t know if I’ll make it or not, but I am certainly happy that I attended this year’s expo.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Space Art Contests Galore

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

NASA Space Art Contest
VSP Illustration from NASA Space Art Contest

It seems that right now there are a number of art contests going on whose theme is space exploration. So if you are into art and into space – then you may want to enter one or more of these art contests.

NASA Future of Flight Art Contest

First there is the NASA Future of Flight Art Contest which is open to High School and College students around the world. This was formerly the The Moon: Back to the Future art contest in which I participated as one of the judges. The Future of Flight Art Contest includes both prizes and exhibit opportunities. Winners will be announced in June 2011.

Entries are in four categories: two-dimensional, three-dimensional, digital, literature (poetry and short stories) and video. Entries will be evaluated on creativity and artistic qualities. Entries are due no later than April 15, 2011.

Take me to The Future of Flight Art Contest

NASA and Etsy 2010 Space Craft Contest

NASA and Etsy have teamed up for the 2010 Space Craft Contest. Hurry because the deadline to enter is November 2, 2010. The purpose of this art contest is "to celebrate artistic exploration and commemorate the end of the NASA Space Shuttle Program with a creative challenge: Share an original handmade item or work of art inspired by the NASA Space Shuttle Program and space exploration at large." The top prize is a trip to an upcoming Shuttle launch as NASA’s VIP guest. There is mention that your artwork might even be flown to space aboard the Space Shuttle!

Take me to the NASA – Etsy 2010 Space Craft Art Contest

SEDS Video Ad Contest

SEDS – Students for the Exploration and Development of Space – is hosting a video contest. The challenge is to "develop an awesome ad for SEDS-USA that shows the world what our organization is all about!" A panel of judges, including William Pomerantz of The X Prize Foundation, William Watson of the Space Frontier Foundation, and Gary Barnhard of the National Space Society, will vote for the winning entry. All entries will be shared online via Youtube.

Hurry – the deadline for entering the video contest is November 2, 2010.

Take me to the SEDS Video Ad Contest

IAA Humans in Space Symposium International Youth Art Competition

The International Academy of Astronautics is sponsoring a art contest as a part of the International Academy of Astronautics Humans in Space Symposium to be held in Houston Texas in April 2011. The IAA is asking artists to address the question "What is the future of human space exploration and why is it important." Contest entry categories include music, art, video, and literature. The contest deadline is December 3, 2010 and is open to student artists who are 10-17 years old.

Take me to the IAA Humans in Space Symposium International Youth Art Competition

Okay all you artist out there – enter one or more of these art contests for your chance to win! And be sure to let interested students know about these contests as well.

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The 2010 NASA Moon Art Contest

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

NASA Art Contest

Last night I finished casting my votes as a judge in the NASA Life and Work on the Moon Art & Design Contest. The art contest is open to all high school and college students. This is the third year NASA has run this contest and this is my third year as a judge for the contest. The contest has really grown in terms of the number of submissions received. NASA has Elizabeth Ward, the art contest’s coordinator, to thank for that. Judging the first year was pretty easy in that it didn’t take much time. This year was another matter entirely. The number of submissions has grown dramatically.

The judging criteria has changed somewhat from the previous contests. In the contest’s first year, judges were expected to evaluate submissions based on the Artist Statement (worth 20 points), Artistic Elements (worth 30 points), Creativity (30 points), and Validity (20 points). Dropped from the criteria after the first year was the artistic elements component. This year the judging criteria are Artist Statement (20 points), Creativity and Artistic Expression (50 points), and Validity (20 points).

For the Artist Statement, students are to explain what inspired them, what artistic media they chose and why, and anything else they want to say about their artwork. Not surprisingly the quality of the artist statements was as varied as the quality of the submission.

The Creativity and Artistic Expression was more subjective as there are no really definable standards to guide a judge – other than their own experience. For example there was one artwork that was pretty good artistically but the imagination that went into creating the piece led me to give it more points than I would have on purely artistic grounds. Another judge may have responded quite differently.

In many cases, judging Validity was the most difficult. Validity refers to the scientific accuracy and degree of understanding of the space environment. For example in the case of a painting that consists only of a space suited astronaut walking on the surface of the Moon – does the person really understand that environment? Some artists did not reveal a lack of understanding in their art but did so in their artist statement. Others made their degree of understanding, or lack thereof, apparent in their art. For example, people without spacesuits on the Moon is kind of a dead give away.

In spite of the large number of submissions I felt compelled to vote for all submissions in the visual categories. My rationale was that voting for some but not other works would skew the final results in that the way in which I award points is likely to be different than the way in which other judges award points. The visual categories for the contest are 2D art, 3D sculpture/dioramas, Digital art, and Video. The two categories in which I did not vote were Literature and Music.

The Biggest Pleasure
What I found most rewarding about the experience was having the opportunity to review the art, think about its meaning, admire its quality, and read the artist’s words about their intent and inspiration.

The Biggest Disappointment
What I found most disheartening was that overwhelmingly the art depicted NASA facilities on the Moon. I know it is a NASA art contest but if we are going to have a large scale human presence on the Moon, then realistically it is going to take more than a government agency to make a go of it. When I go to the Moon, I want to hit Starbucks for my latte, stay at the Lunar Hilton, and dine at the local Uno’s. So while many of the students participating in the art contest showed a solid grasp of the lunar environment and what we could do on the Moon, I don’t recall any of them really featuring the role of private enterprise.

Given the recent decision of the Obama administration to cancel NASA’s plans for a return to the Moon, I will be most interested to see what happens with respect to the future of this art contest.


To get details on the 2010 contest, visit the NASA Life and Work on the Moon Art & Design Contest site. You may also want to take a look at the Winners of the 2009 art contest

I previously wrote about the NASA art contest in the following blog posts:

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A Personal Perspective on NASA’s New Direction

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Abandon in Place space art
Abandon in Place space art

Yesterday I had the privilege of being interviewed by Steve Grzanich, a reporter for WBBM-AM radio. The topic of our conversation was my reaction to this week’s announcement regarding NASA’s new budget and the decision to cancel both the Constellation program and NASA’s plans for a return of humans to the Moon. In the context of the interview I was speaking as an individual who also happens to be a director for the National Space Society and a vice president of the Chicago Society for Space Studies.

I would summarize my reaction to the new NASA direction as mixed. There is good news in the announcement but also bad news. My feeling is that on the whole, the announcement reflects an administration position that is soft on its support for space exploration.

On the good side is the plan to operate the International Space Station for an additional 5 years – until 2020. ISS was built to provide us with a science platform in space and I viewed it as the height of folly to terminate the station by de-orbiting it in 2015. Who but the government would spend 25 years and over $100 billion to build a laboratory and then abandon it only 4 years after its completion? I would also hope that when 2020 arrives, if ISS is still viable, that it be privatized for continued use and not deliberately destroyed as was originally planned.

The very good news was the expansion of a commitment for NASA to procure commercial launch services. This is something that the space movement has been advocating for years. Such a program was already underway in the guise of the COTS program. COTS – Commercial Orbital Transportation Services – is a program to procure the commercial delivery of cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). One of the driving factors for this was the “gap” – that being the period of time between the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the availability of its replacement via the Constellation program. During this gap, the U.S. government would essentially be outsourcing its access to the space station to Russia.

Tied in with the decision to expand NASA’s procurement of commercially provided services is the administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program. Constellation is/was the program that would provide both crew (Ares I) and cargo (Ares V) launch vehicles, a crew spacecraft (Orion), and a lunar lander (Altair). Of course there is no reason why both government and commercial launch services could not have been pursued in parallel. Make no mistake – this decision was not made because the Obama administration has become pro-space advocates of free markets. Rather it is in recognition of the fact that private enterprise can probably do the job faster and cheaper and abandoning Constellation means the cost of the Constellation program can be removed from the NASA budget.

The bad news is the cancellation of plans to return humans to the Moon which once again consigns astronauts to LEO (Low Earth Orbit). A pro-space administration would have expanded the commercial program to include calls for private industry to develop a transportation system that could deliver humans and cargo to the surface of the Moon – with NASA signing on for some number of missions. There was no need to throw out the goal of returning people to the Moon.

As to NASA’s proposed budget for the next five years, the annual increases called for will be less than the rate of inflation so NASA’s purchasing power is actually going to decline over time. Given that NASA’s 2009 budget was 18.78 billion (inclusive of stimulus funds, source:NASA Budget Summary) and the proposed 2015 budget is $20.99 billion, this works out to an annual growth rate of a paltry 1.8 percent.

On the good side, the budget will provide $4.9 billion over 5 years for a space technology development program; $3.1 billion over five years for heavy lift vehicle research (recall the newly canceled Ares V heavy lift vehicle); and $7.8 billion over five years for technology demonstrations for spaceflight technologies – if the administration keeps its word. Unfortunately all the technology examples given are technologies initiated in the past but abandoned. For example – inflatable structures. Does anyone here recall TransHab?

One disconnect I noticed was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s claim that "Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year." This means the development of a non-chemical based propulsion system. Unfortunately there is not one word about the development of such a revolutionary system in the NASA budget statement.

While there is more to say about the new direction being set for NASA, my comments here represent my reaction to the major points announced earlier this week.

The Illustration

Abandon-in-Place is a piece that I created to voice my disappointment at the cancellation of the last three Apollo missions to the Moon – one empty spacesuit for each of the canceled Apollo missions. Given that NASA has now been told by the administration to abandon plans for a human return to the Moon, this artwork seemed an appropriate piece to use. For more information about the art, see the Abandon-in-Place web page.

Ad Astra, Jim

Postscript: The National Space Society has released a press release outlining its position on the new NASA budget. See Welcomes Sci-Tech, Private-Sector Spending In 2011 Budget, But Calls For Continued Human Spaceflight Beyond Earth Orbit

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Social Networking and Robotic Space Exploration

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

JPL Saturn Twitter Wallpaper
NASA JPL Saturn Twitter Wallpaper detail

For those of you who like to follow NASA’s robotic exploration of space, here is a list of links to NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) related missions and projects social networking web pages.

Billed as being wallpapers for Twitter, there is a nice collection of images that you can use as wallpaper for your desktop or web site at the NASA JPL Free Twitter Wallpaper Page. The only caveat is that each image is tagged with a little blue bird in a space suit. This post’s illustration is a full sized reproduction of the section of a Cassini image of Saturn that contains the blue bird astronaut.

A full list of all NASA-related social networking Web sites can be found at

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