If motivational speaking was all you needed to get to into orbit then several speakers at this year's 2nd International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight held in the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, could have reached the International Space Station (ISS) already. Flying high on the suborbital flights of Microsoft's Paul Allen's Scaled Composites designed SpaceShipOne (SS1) in 2004 the symposium is becoming an annual rally for the members of the nascent space tourism industry in the US that is promising the ultimate experience for all.
Whether it's the science fiction appeal of going into the final frontier or the idea of becoming a new Microsoft for a new industry, or both, there is a lot of time and effort going into creating a new industry. The symposium, organised by New Mexico state's space grant consortium, had sessions including astronauts, suborbital vehicle developers, community leaders, politicians and even an insurance broker, for the throng of a few hundred wannabe space tourists, potential suppliers, oh, and me, that had decided to attend.
The symposium's opening Tuesday morning plenary session had, on the left hand (from the audiences perspective) side of the speaker's table, three key figures (left to right in the picture above, Las Cruces Mayor William Mattiace, X Prize Foundation's founder Peter Diamandis, New Mexico cabinet economic development secretary Rick Homans and the plenary's master of ceremonies, retired NBC news presenter Sam Donaldson.) for the US industry.
Peter Diamandis, X Prize Foundation's founder and chairman, the man behind the $10 million prize that saw SS1 go into space, making people realize that private spaceflight was possible; Rick Homans, cabinet economic development secretary for the state of New Mexico, the man charged with the job of building the state's spaceport it modestly calls Spaceport America; and then William Mattiace, the Mayor of Las Cruces who will have to help convince voters next year that they should raise their local sales tax to raise a few million dollars each year for something as science fiction like as a spaceport.
The rhetoric from the table is clear, its very inspirational, it's the can-do spirit, the nothing is impossible, the belief that an individual's hard work will overcome obstacles and government indifference or even hostility. Certainly in the next year that talk will have to become reality with two key events having to happen.
Spaceport America needs to get its spaceport licence from the US Federal Aviation Administration to get state funds to start construction and Virgin Galactic's suborbital vehicle SpaceShipTwo (SS2) has to be unveiled, which we're told it will be, providing another concrete step forward for the industry. There are other potential players, Rocketplane-Kistler's XP vehicle might be flight tested for the first time next year and Space Adventure's Explorer rocket glider might make some progress with its Russian developer. But with the SS1 suborbital flights now two years ago there will have to be progress in the next 12 months or the momentum, so tangible in the speeches of people such as Diamandis, will fade rapidly.
Contemplating this countdown on the second day of trhe symposium I found myself, sitting in the press room, in the middle of a dowsing class. It was being given by a man who claimed that dowsing was not just about finding water but about finding answers. Whether his dowsing rod could answer the questions about voters' intentions for a sales tax plebiscite or the progress of SS2 or next week's lottery numbers was another issue entirely.
If self-belief doesn't quite work then there are always the astronauts. Speaking supportively about private citizens going into space the Shuttle, ISS and Apollo veterans in the line up were happy to give advice to the eager citizen space explorers, even if their space experience was more likely to be measured in minutes rather than days or months (L-R in the picture below, astronauts, John David-Bartoe, Thomas Jones, Mario Runco, Buzz Aldrin, Rick Searfoss, Leroy Chiao, Jay Buckley, and John Herrington).
But like any new endeavour there are bound to be set backs and how this industry responds to those will determine whether it survives.
As any New Mexican will tell you, if you're going to wander into unknown territory, you better step carefully.