All of humanity: free or not

I waved furiously, grinning, with the microphone held in my hand as the Chinese Ministry of State Security agent took my picture.
I’d just stood up to ask Professor Yong Yang a question about his Chinese state owned company, China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, and his country’s plans for reusable rockets.

The State Security agent had been quick, he’d spun round as I stood up, camera in hand, but I was just as swift and I chuckle to myself thinking about the intelligence officers back in Beijing who will look at the pictures of me making faces.But this is one of the great things about the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), it really does bring humanity together from all across the globe. Whether your job is a space scientist from a free society or an enforcer, even if you still love your Mum, for a single-party state dictatorship overseeing a billion people.

The biggest jamboree of jamborees there are thousands of people from government, universities, industry, and non-government organisations from all corners of the globe all milling around wandering from technical session to technical session to plenary. Located this year in the city of Valencia, which is on Spain’s Mediterranean south east coast, the locale is being re-generated with the most amazing architecture, especially here at the City of Arts and Sciences.

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Being British Spain is for me a popular and well known destination with a people whose approach to life’s priorities is defined, by themselves, with one Spanish word, mana – tomorrow. This however does have its down side as one senior space agency official said to me, referring to the local IAC organizers, “I think they have collapsed under the weight of the people.”

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I had to agree, especially with the bizarre last minute unannounced time change for the heads of space agency plenary session from 13:30 local time to 11:20, which saw most of the press corp miss it. Having said that everything else was pretty smooth and for an aerospace journalist, with the emphasis on space, the event still had space agency chiefs, senior personnel from those agencies and senior corporate managers, vice presidents to meet and greet.

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Pictured above, in the centre of the image, closest to the camera, is NASA associate administrator for exploration Bill Gerstenmaier having a quiet moment with his Blackberry cell phone. Many of these senior people you can meet at the various functions thrown by their organisations on each of the Congress’ nights.

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Or at the plenary sessions, one of which was on satellite markets for the next 20 years, you can grab an interview with a space company chief executive, such as Alcatel Alenia Space’s Pascale Sourisse (far right in the picture below).

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At the Alcatel Alenia Space party we were entertained by Flamenco dancers. The Spanish Arianespace manager I had been talking to me pointed out that the style of music and Flamenco being played out before our eyes wasn’t from the Valencia region, it was from the southern coastal region. I asked him what he thought of it being a Valencia man. He shrugged his shoulders, “it’s for the tourists.”

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There was more of that on show at the IAC with various senioritas dressed in traditional costumes acting as guides. Tourist pleasing dancing or not there is so much to see at an IAC you have to make tough choices about what you do. The 254-page conference guide has 175-pages dedicated to simply listing the plenary and technical sessions for the event’s five days. I’m lucky with a constrained range of topics of relevance to Flight’s readers.

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If I were here as a private individual I would have to struggle  – as you would – to decide whether to go to a session on the latest extra-solar Earth-like planetary research or the everyday topic of the legality of conventional low Earth orbit based weapons for the war on terror – that is an actual IAC topic by the way. If you want to get away from the sessions there is always the exhibition stands.

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The UK was particularly well represented this year while Boeing and Lockheed were missing. One big advantage for me is that all the sessions are in English, but some people’s version of English is a bit harder to understand than others. Then there is the inability of some, well most people, to use a microphone. How can such a simple device be such a problem for so many rocket scientists? Hold it closer to your mouth!!

But language problems aside the IAC is great for meeting the Russians, Japanese and Chinese who normally are too many time zones away to call easily, even if either of us could speak each others’ languages. I haven’t found the Japanese or the Russians too keen on communicating by email either and the Chinese often have email addresses on their business cards that simply don’t work.

Maybe that’s the shadowy work of the Chinese Ministry of State Security or maybe they use our IT support team? The first time I encountered the photo taking Chinamen was at the Farnborough air show this year and maybe I will see them again at Le Bourget next year. In 2007 the IAC is in India and the year after that in the UK city of Glasgow in Scotland. No doubt my editor will be pleased about the costs of attending that one. I wonder what my Chinese state security friend will make of one of Britain’s great industrial cities? There is plenty to photograph.

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