11/03/2013 04:14 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Back in Business -- Attending Harvard Business School's Second Annual Conference on Space Business

Events of October 27, 2013

Captain Michael López-Alegría, COMMERCIAL SPACEFLIGHT FEDERATION President with Zoe P. Strassfield, author, at the Harvard Business School's 2013 Space Conference: Space: The Business Frontier.

The first two months of Junior Year seemed to fly by for me, especially as a member of Boston University's space clubs. As much as it seemed like only yesterday I'd first met the representatives of BU's chapters of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) and the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) at the student activities expo freshman year, it was already my third year with the clubs, and I was going to be spending it as secretary of our SEDS chapter.

This year's expo was a great success for both clubs, with a lot of new members coming to all of the meetings since, where we drew up plans for a homebuilt telescope and discussed the 1960s MOOSE emergency system designed to help astronauts bail out of spacecraft and safely return to Earth. And then we got an e-mail from Harvard Business School's Aerospace and Aviation Club announcing that they would be having another conference about space as a business sector.

I'm not enrolled in BU's own business school, the School of Management (SMG), but I'd enjoyed the previous conference, a year and a half before. This conference had the same name--Space: The Business Frontier--and location as its predecessor, but promised new speakers and new perspectives on space-related industries. "Space business", as we'd learned at the previous meeting, came in many different forms--not just companies that launched payloads or tourists into space, but also those that built rockets and other vehicles, managed commercial spaceports, and operated satellite networks.

So after an unusually-early Sunday wake-up, the members of BU SEDS and AIAA found ourselves assembled in the lobby of the Photonics Center, waiting for everyone to arrive before loading into cars owned by members to head to the business school in Allston. It was a pleasant late-October morning, with the trees outside of the building decorated with brightly-colored leaves. We headed inside to enjoy some free breakfast before the conference officially started.

I chatted with some members of the HBS Aerospace and Aviation Club before catching sight of one of the participants in the opening keynote discussion, former astronaut Leroy Chiao. I commended Dr. Chiao for his excellent lightly-humorous article in the Wall Street Journal about a year before, describing the International Space Station in real-estate terms. He thanked me and said that it had been fun to write!

The BU groups filed into the auditorium with the other attendees to hear the keynote discussion--Dr. Chiao and fellow spaceflight veteran Michael López-Alegría would be interviewed by Carissa Christensen of the analytical consulting firm The Tauri Group, starting the conference off with a unique perspective on businesses related to outer space--the perspective of people who had been there!

Ms. Christensen first provided some background into the two former astronauts she would be speaking with--Dr. Chiao was a chemical engineer and Berkeley grad who had commanded the International Space Station in 2004-05 and now was the CEO of Diomics, a bioscience corporation. Captain López-Alegría is a Naval officer who holds the record for most spacewalking time by a NASA astronaut and is currently the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group that encourages the growth and improvement of commercial human spaceflight.

First, Ms. Christensen's questions focused on the two men's spaceflight experiences--what did they think were the easiest and hardest parts of the astronaut experience? Chiao said that the intensive training was the hardest, and that while actually flying in space wasn't "easy", it was enjoyable enough to make everything that came before worthwhile. López-Alegría said that the hardest part had been just being selected, and that everything after that seemed easy.

As a group, what did NASA astronauts think of the possibility of many more people becoming space travelers? The two men said that initially, the prevailing attitude had been to be skeptical of the companies making those promises, but that now they had shown themselves to be qualified. The current Association of Space Explorers only allows individuals who have orbited the Earth to be members, and there had been some question about admitting the space tourists who had flown to the space station for short trips. However, in a story I was very familiar with from Guy Laliberte's documentary about his own tourist flight, López-Alegría said that the organization's members had found that the space tourists brought to the organization "an interesting mix of skills and abilities", whatever title they were called by. Both men said they were in favor of space tourism and its potential to democratize spaceflight and help share this unique experience with the public.

Dr. Chiao had trained in Russia alongside Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist, and been aboard the space station at the same time as her. At first, he hadn't known what to expect from a space tourist, but she had quickly shown herself to be as professional and dedicated as the other astronauts and cosmonauts she was training with. He repeated the previous sentiment--the space community needed entrepreneurs and communicators.

From what they had seen in their personal experiences with space companies since leaving the astronaut corps, what were some typical characteristics of those involved in such companies? Chiao said that most of the investors had some initial interest in space, and thought it was cool enough to make investments in space companies even though they might be risky--but a company still had to offer a clear return on investment if it wanted to attract enough investors to be successful. López-Alegría observed that many investors had made their money in non-space-related industries but still came to his organization with unique space-related ideas--such as World View Enterprises' recent announcement of a plan to offer balloon rides to the stratosphere inside a pressurized gondola.

The next discussion was a panel on the application of research done in space to the consumer market. The participants were Dr. Chiao, former Air Force Chief Scientist Daniel Hastings, and John Shannon, Boeing's International Space Station program manager. Dr. Hastings said that there were really three things one could make money transporting between Earth and space--mass, energy, and information. The cheapest to transport was information, and not coincidentally, satellite communications and imaging were two of the oldest and most profitable space-related industries. Mass was more expensive--even though programs like CubeSat allowed people to design satellites and do experiments that interested them in space more cheaply, the launch cost was still high.

What about returning mass from space to Earth, as several asteroid-mining companies had recently proposed? Hastings said that the task would be technically difficult, and that the company would have to make sure that the materials they were harvesting were valuable enough to cover the cost of sending the spacecraft to the asteroid and back. Of course, valuable materials are valuable because they're rare, at least on Earth, and a company might also run the risk of bringing back so much of a rare substance that its value was decreased. (Similar to the dilemma faced by the discoverers of an island full of flawless diamonds in the classic children's novel The Twenty-One Balloons.) Dr. Chiao agreed that it was a risky investment, but that everything he had seen indicated the people who had invested were committed to the risks and that it was important to "never discourage people from dreaming". Shannon said that he welcomed research into asteroid mining because even if a company didn't find success, they might develop technologies or concepts useful in other aspects of spaceflight.

One of the few complaints I'd had with the previous year's conference was the long interval between breakfast and lunch, especially because I hadn't eaten anything beforehand. This year, however, lunch was offered right after that second panel. I was lucky enough to find a seat at the same table as Captain López-Alegría and Mr. Shannon. Like all of the other students at the table, I listened eagerly as they swapped stories about their involvement with the International Space Station.

López-Alegría said that spacewalking from the station was different than from the space shuttle because the shuttle airlock was within its payload bay--after exiting, you were still surrounded by metal on three sides and space on only one--but the station airlocks are more exposed, meaning that the sense of truly being outside in open space sinks in sooner. Like some other spacewalkers I'd heard talk about the experience, he said his first impression upon seeing the Earth curving away in front of him had been to worry that he might suddenly fall a very long way, before the reality that he was safely floating in orbit sunk in. He regretted not having been able to stop and enjoy the view, but spacewalkers always have to focus on the task at hand.

Between stories like that and the excellent food, none of us wanted lunch to end. But eventually it had to, and we all headed to another auditorium downstairs to hear a keynote address from Jim Crocker, General Manager of Civil Space at Lockheed Martin's Space Systems Company. Crocker talked eagerly about the many space projects he had been involved in and the ways they had impacted the lives of ordinary people. Satellite communications is one of the clearest examples of space travel affecting our everyday lives, and one of the biggest segments of the commercial space industry, but satellite navigation is catching up to it on both fronts. Although it began with the military Transit and GPS systems, millions of ordinary civilians around the world depend upon satellite navigation today--not just for getting where we need to go, but for road maintenance, surveying, and even agriculture.

He was very excited about his company's work building the Orion capsule, the first test flight of which, he happily stated, was in 315 days. This flexible NASA vehicle is designed to carry astronauts to a variety of destinations, including the space station, the moon, Mars, and Near-Earth Asteroids. Another upcoming project that Mr. Crocker was proud of was the OSIRIS-REx probe, due to launch in 2016 and return samples from the asteroid 101955 Bennu to Earth, similar to the earlier Stardust mission to Comet Wild 2. Mr. Crocker also spoke with pride of past projects, including last year's moon-mapping GRAIL mission and the Mars Phoenix Lander, which provided the first definite proof of water ice on the surface of the red planet. But spacecraft with a focus closer to home were also important--weather satellites have proved invaluable in warning coastal communities of incoming hurricanes. This wide range of projects and objectives and Mr. Crocker's enthusiasm for all of them reflected one of his closing statements: "A lot of people are in the space industry because it is EXCITING!"

And the next panel's participants all certainly shared that excitement--Lon Levin of XM Satellite Radio, Clay Mowry of the launch company Arianespace, and J. Armand Musey of the Summit Ridge Group talked about "Financing Space"--finding the money to turn enthusiastic plans into the reality of a successful space business. According to Levin, the keys to success were simple-sounding but important: to attract investors, a company needed good management and a sound business plan--while satellite radio was very successful in the United States, the same business model wouldn't work in Europe or Australia because of the different linguistic diversity and population density in those regions. Mowry added that a company had to offer something its competitors did not--such as the Skybox Imaging company's plan to offer high-resolution satellite imagery and video with a much quicker turnaround time than current providers. All of the participants said that perseverance was an essential trait for anyone interested in starting a space company, especially when presenting an idea that might seem outlandish or like pure science fiction. Mr. Levin summed up the process as he'd experienced it with XM--"First they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you make sense [to them]."

Those words seemed applicable to space travel as a whole--ninety years before, just down the Massachusetts Turnpike in Worcester, hadn't Robert Goddard been ridiculed for even suggesting that a rocket could reach the moon? Just a week before, the LADEE probe had been the latest spacecraft to do just that--something the whole world now knew as not only possible, but commonplace. And despite acknowledging the difficulties involved, no one at the conference had declared any of the endeavors we'd discussed, however risky or far-out, impossible. They knew better than that--everybody here meant business.