ExWeb Special: 2007 conference report - disciplined visionaries entering the Space stage

Posted: Jun 01, 2007 03:22 pm EDT

(Pythom.com) Seasons now closing on Everest and the North Pole, the Earth's frontiers are once again turning desolate places, with a few lucky teams left to experience what exploration was like in dawn of man. Another area currently abandoned by humans is Space. Two big gatherings took place in US in the past months, and ExWeb attended both. Bigelow revealed his business plan April 10 at the National Space Symposium in Colorado, while in Texas last weekend - the big annual ISS conference kicked off. <cutoff>

The National Space Symposium was a surprise. Speakers; generals with stars beaming from shoulder straps and important men in black suits took turns in shoe shining chairs placed in a room next to the stage. Models of shimmering satellites hung in the exhibitors hall. Security at code orange and business cards discreetly changing hands between members of government and the big Aerospace players - this was not space exploration but Washington paying Colorado a brief visit.

<b>Garden of Gods</b>

The 'private sector' was let in to speak in the final hours of the last day. Bigelow's business plan included renting his inflatable space base camp tent to international governments for research, and Elon Musk (SpaceX) told us he has a great relationship with NASA. British Alex Tai's (Virgin Galactic) speech began by an introduction to his various aviation records and then Alex grabbed the opportunity to advertise Branson's private tropical island, available for rent at $300 K per week "Too bad Richard couldn't be here," Tai added, "but he is currently out on a polar adventure."

No space faring visions were presented. Rooms at the hosting five star Broadmoor hotel (born in 1891 as a gambling casino) ran $300 and up; for space exploration wannabees on a budget like us that meant a view facing away from Colorado Springs Garden of Gods.

<b>In Dallas, one month later</b>

One month later in Dallas, the only uniting theme between the two space seminars seemed to be pouring rain. In true Texas spirit, air conditioning was cranked up to cryogenic temperatures at hotel Continental as we, sneezing violently, nose dived into <i>real</i> space.

As usual, this was a star-studded event. New faces included Doom and Quake coder John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace; favorites included Astronaut Don Pettit. Organized by the National Space Society (NSS), the ISS conference kicked off with a special event - a financial symposium.

<b>The Billon dollar road</b>

We learned that satellite makers don't make the real dough; instead it's the folks farthest down on the supply chain who earns most (on applications). That was music to the ears of team HumanEdgeTech although Contact software - along with many other soft satellite services - has yet to hit the mass market.

One who has, with music exactly, is co-founder of XM Satellite radio Lon Levin. Lon's venture is closing in on 7 million subscribers and possibly doubling if the proposed merger with Sirius happens. The billion dollar road has been a long and winding one, starting in 1988 and including names both famous and infamous such as Worldspace, WorldCom, Rupert Murdoch, Direct TV and various automobile makers. On this occasion however, sensing perhaps and end to a wild ride lasting almost 20 years, Lon looked happy and relaxed.

<b>An appetite for risk</b>

Lon seems to have made it, while the jury is still out on most of the rest. "Know your market!" came the advice from NextTechs Technologies LLC (an investment bank). "Have the need, the market, a risk appetite, a budget, and the technical understanding," said the investors adding, "and pay attention to the customer." The last a great advice to most sat phone providers - had they only been around to hear it.

The main areas of interest right now are sensors, simulation software, optics, non invasive devices and material science to name a few. Services based on comsats are reportedly great cash cows. Satellite solar power is a big one ($400 B) but needs to iron out a few hurdles such as energy loss and high launch costs - another big challenge in the space satellite business. The cost per pound (currently $10k/lb) is a critical issue to build a business plan around.

As for private space travel, the event touched on cheap propulsion. New Mexico's Greg Kulka said that the state plans to invest in Virgin Galactic, "as they have expressed they'll use the spaceport," and Eric Anderson of Space Adventures said he's currently pitching 2 billionaires for a Soyuz ride around the moon, "that would be huge," he smiled.

<b>When Angels fall in love</b>

Then came a hands-on lecture in the difference between different types of VC's. Beyond the initial 3 F's ('friends, family and fools') come the Angels, we learned: Emotional risk takers, these are the guys who'll invest in football teams - all it takes is to make them fall in love with you. They like to invest in groups close to home, averaging $500 thousand in investment capital. Don't defend your risk with them; they have a lot more money, what they put in you is cash they can risk to lose.

Strategic partners will kick it up to a million but don't like to be dependent on partners they don't own so be prepared to lose control and/or a buy out.

<b>Wall street: Looking for a lady covered in scars and bruises</b>

Investors need to see an exit and that's where Wall Street comes in, seeking anything <i>but</i> risk, they said: "I'm looking for that lady walking in with a big smile on her face, covered in scars and bruises, pointing back and telling me, 'don't go down there'," a representative from the street told us. But how do we sell space solar power to the public? "We don't," came the reply, "instead ask yourself, would you take your 401K and invest in this project?" said the pros.

Whether you are streamlining end user marketing of satellite communication or scheming a space energy plan, point is that your only outlet is your angel team: if you don't make it there you're not ready. And even if you make it through the first round, smart money (strategic partners) is what counts, was the message.

We were told that commercialization of Space is needed ASAP, with seed money from the government. And to not forget that the military actually spends 50% more than NASA does on space.

<b>Understanding faster than light speed</b>

As for the rest of the conference, we witnessed a faster than light speed experiment and although obviously very promising - we have to confess we didn't quite get it so that report must wait.

Basically though, professor Günter Muntz's experiment showed that using evanescent modes to transmit signals, communication and travel in zero time should be possible when using a distant 'mirror' such as a planet. The discovery still needs to be accomplished over larger distances though. Moderator Bill Gardiner tried to explain this revolution but when he asked how many of us understood what was really going on, only 2 hands flew up. The interesting part was however that the room was crammed, and people stayed.

<b>Marrakech bazaar in off hours</b>

NASA presented their new "Second life" virtual workspace, where your Avatar can collaborate with the agency and others on space related ideas and problems. Past, future and ongoing NASA missions were otherwise discussed, unfortunately focusing more on complexity than results. The general space debate resembled a Marrakech bazaar in off hours - lots of chatter at little action.

Robert Zubrin from the Mars Society pointed out that Griffin is engaging only a tentative vision for Mars, and Bush has made only a vague commitment. Soon, we were back at the moon and LEO satellites.

<b>2007: Understanding that glossy stuff needs money</b>

In the end, the space venture finance symposium kicking off this year's ISS conference turned out the most interesting.

The folks urged the private sector to stop chasing entitlements from the government, let go a little of the vision of space and go to the numbers and thus become 'disciplined visionaries'.

"Building a sustainable economy in space will help us get there," was the word. Marco Polo, Columbus, Amundsen, Lewis & Clark and other explorers did nothing like that though. But they did pave way for riches in money, trade and science unimaginable at the time of their discoveries.

The packed finance symposium seemed a sign of the New Space Age. "10 years ago you couldn't get 10 people to attend a financial conference like this," concluded the organizers. "Everyone was in the other room looking at the glossy stuff."

"These are new times; showing people understand that money is needed."

#Space #feature

Rooms at the The National Space Symposium Broadmoor hotel ran $300 and up; for space explorers on a budget like us that meant a view facing away from Colorado Springs Garden of Gods. Image courtesy of Broadmoor hotel (Click to enlarge).
View from the top floor at hotel Continental in Dallas, where the 2007 ISS conference kicked off with a special event - a financial symposium. Image ExWeb (click to enlarge).

Falcon I at SpaceX launch pad, Kwajalein Atoll. Credit: Thom Rogers (click to enlarge).

John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace was a new face also at this year's ISS conference in Texas. Image ExWeb (click to enlarge).

One who has made money from Space is Lon Levin (right) co-founder of XM Satellite radio. Esther Dyson (left) from EDventure holdings (sold to CNET in 2004) did a sharp job moderating the Angel investment speaker panel. Image ExWeb (click to enlarge).
The two legendary founders of Kistler Aerospace (reusable low-cost vehicles designed to deliver payloads to orbit), Walt Kistler (left) and Bob Citron (right) checked out Mars images on Citron's computer. Image ExWeb (click to enlarge).
We witnessed a faster than light speed experiment and although obviously very promising - we have to confess we didn't quite get it so that report must wait. Image ExplorersWeb (click to enlarge).
Professor Günter Muntz's experiment showed that using evanescent modes to transmit signals, communication and travel in zero time (demonstrated in the right box) should be possible.
"These are new times; showing people understand that money is needed," concluded the organizers of ISS. Image of America's Space Prize, courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace (click to enlarge).
Hosting the National Space Symposium, Broadmoor hotel was born in 1891 as a gambling casino. Image courtesy of Broadmoor hotel (click to enlarge).

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