Space Symposium: Blue Origin steals the show for the second year in a row

04/10/2017 17:16
There's something about real, flown space hardware that quickens the pulse. And when its the first rocket to both launch and land safely five times, people are in awe. And so it was at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs last week -- where photos like the one above became THE obligatory selfie for attendees. In their various comings and goings to symposium events, people gawked while passing time after time. And, as if that weren't enough, it was lit up like the Eiffel Tower at night. Oh, and yeah, Jeff Bezos was there for the second year in a row.
Last year, at the 32nd Space Symposium, Bezos' presence alone was enough to energize the 12,000+ attendees. It was his first major appearance at the Symposium, or, for that matter, any major space industry gathering. During his "fireside chat" in the International Center, he held the crowd in thrall with his detailed and expert engineering knowledge and his command of all things having to do with rockets, rocket engines, propulsion, space launch and spaceship recovery. People had come expecting to see a rich, retail genius talk about his space toys, and were somewhat shocked to meet one of the smartest rocket scientists in the business. Speaking with him, it was clear that Mr. Bezos felt good, almost giddy. Later that day, Blue Origin threw a party, and he held court all afternoon.
This kind of razzle-dazzle, showmanship style of marketing is long overdue in the space industry, and between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk there seems to be a fine and fun competition to see which entrepreneur can most excite, most inspire, and most hold us in thrall. It needs to be mentioned that in spite of the omnipresence of Blue at the symposium, people were still talking about what SpaceX had accomplished the week before -- flying a previously flown booster core to space, completing its satellite launch mission flawlessly, and landing back on earth so that the booster can be used yet again - the second complete cycle of launch, deploy payload, fly back and land for this same vehicle. During the week I bumped into a small handful of retired Air Force general officers who had quietly thumbed their noses at SpaceX, officers who had told me in whispers it couldn't be done, wouldn't be done. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are telling the world "Hell yes it can be done!" And maybe even saying "We're the ones with the 'secret sauce' now." And they're not just saying it, they're doing it.
The "Holy Grail" in the space transportation sector has always been reusability. With the space industry now able to "spin in" technology rather that only "spin off" high tech, the Grail is within our grasp. It makes me wonder how long before someone with enough money turns their attention to the long-elusive Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO). Who knows? Blue Origin was silent and secretive in the beginning. I remember visiting Blue in the early days, and having to sign a non-disclure agreement just to walk into the building. I still can't tell you what I saw. Maybe somewhere, someone is taking the same approach with an SSTO -- which today, with "spin in" technology, is technically feasible to build and operate with payload mass fractions that make sense.
In any case, the glitzy marketing and even a little braggadocio are welcome in an industry that has specialized for half a century in trying to make its work seem boring. From deadpan delivery of launch commentary or press conferences at NASA to corporate advertising that seldom says more than "we're good, patriotic Americans, so please buy our hardware," the space business is that odd duck that accomplishes the most amazing stuff humanly possible, while limiting its excitement to bland, corporate slogans.
So, hat's off to the amazing Space Foundation team for pulling off, yet again, a Space Symposium that was even bigger, better and more thrilling that the last. And here's to Blue Origin for once again stealing the show.
Who's going to step up next year?