Conversation orbits space at Biltmore

Photo by Nick Johnson

Last Thursday in the Imperial Ballroom of the Biltmore, the Atlantic hosted the next in their Bold Bets series, titled “Commercializing the Cosmos.”

The event featured speakers and panels focusing on the economy, regulation and diversity involved when speaking of humanity’s future in space. The event was underwritten by Siemens Corporation, who announced a new partnership with Tech featuring Siemens’ product lifecycle management (PLM) software.

The event was introduced by Margaret Low Smith, president of AtlanticLIVE, which live-streamed the event. Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson then addressed the audience. He described the “explosion of innovation” that Tech Square has brought to campus, mentioning the recent Mars discovery among others, highlighting the importance of space in the lives and futures of everyone at the event.

David Riemer, vice president of aerospace and defense strategy for Siemens PLM software, was the final introduction. He described the “digitalization of the cosmos” that Tech would help bring about via the partnership.

After the introduction, the first panel, “The Commercialization and Personalization of Space” began. Hosted by Steve Clemons, Washington editor at large of the Atlantic, the panel featured Salvatore Bruno, president and CEO of the United Launch Alliance, Steve Justice, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace, and Michael Paul, a space systems engineer at Penn State. They spoke about the misconceptions of space exploration’s effect on the global economy and that it will “change the dynamics between nations.”

The group also brought up that infrastructure in general benefits the economy, and that space infrastructure will be no different. They mentioned the lessening of governments’ roles in space as private companies become more interested in space exploration. Bruno suggested that space should be “driven by private companies” in the future. They discussed the recent discovery of water on Mars, which could allow humans to become a “multi-planetary species” since the water could be converted to propellant. The panel concluded by forwarding the idea that humans could find economic development in space and even earn a living there.

The next panel, “The Future of Space Exploration,” featured George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, John Roth, space systems vice president of business development and strategy at the Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Frank Slazer, vice president of space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association.

The panel began with an emphasis by Nield that NASA is not the sole government entity heavily involved in outer space, and that the FAA is the main regulatory body, answering a question from the previous panel. This panel continued with the impact that individuals can make in this field. Roth mentioned that Sierra Nevada tracks about one hundred startups that could “open the world up in a totally different way.” He then said that NASA “takes a lot of credit for what industry does” with respect to the efforts of the more unheard-of startups and private companies.

The panel discussed areas of future litigation such as suborbital tourism and its current price tag, space ports and mining asteroids for rare metals, since currently “what happens in between [takeoff and landing] is pretty much the Wild West.” This is especially true since many forays into space are being conducted by billionaires via programs such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. This panel ascribed these efforts as being taken because “the government isn’t doing it fast enough for their tastes.”

Panelists then maintained that space exploration would help stimulate less developed countries, as also mentioned in the previous panel. The panel also tossed around the idea of additively manufacturing parts in space via 3D printing, as it would allow astronauts and cosmonauts to build and assemble what they need on the spot. The panel ended with Nield posing the question “what’s the role of government … [and] of industry?” with respect to exploring space.

Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens USA, then officially announced the partnership between Tech and Siemens. He said that their PLM software and training is $200 million in worth to Tech and that there are about 200 Tech alumni currently working at Siemens. Spiegel claimed that there has been a resurgence in manufacturing that would require “the energy and intellect of students” to continue, which this partnership aims to support.

Jilda Garton, vice president of the Georgia Tech Applied Research Corporation, then spoke on the topic and brought up Tech’s long history of collaboration. She emphasized this collaboration in addition to student engagement, saying that the students would be “the next generation of innovators and leaders.” Garton encouraged the students present at the event to “think about some bold projects, because … the bets will pay off,” tying it back to the Bold Bets series.

Afterwards, the headline interview with NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, Ph.D., began. She opened with the topic of water on Mars, then moved to her testimony to the House Science Committee, for which she received support. She next emphasized the importance of diversity in both disciplines and people. Pointing to the fact that it will take geologists and astrobiologists to find life on other planets, Stofan said that NASA alone cannot accomplish such major goals with its current budget.

The discussion then turned to the topic of women in STEM fields and how diversity improves “how we talk to different communities.” “We need all hands on deck, and that’s why diversity is so important,” Stofan said. “It’s not just numbers. [It’s an] investment in our future, investment in our country.”

An audience member asked what the most interesting yet lesser publicized plans are for space, to which Stofan answered the mission to put a floating lander on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, which has an atmosphere and oceans of methane. The mission would help answer the question of if water is a requirement to life, “push[ing] on a lot of our assumptions.”

Stofan went on to discuss the James Webb Space Telescope, which she claimed would “take us to the next level” in identifying star and galaxy formations as well as the atmospheres of planets. This telescope plans to eventually replace the Hubble Space Telescope which has been active for 25 years this past May.

The interview wrapped up with Stofan saying that scientific advances have gotten astronauts where they are now, but further progress is needed to accomplish more: small satellites and sensors, additive manufacturing, but also crowd-sourcing and working with people of different disciplines.