Space Means Business? Space: The Business Frontier at Harvard Business School

05/08/2012 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2012

Like most Boston University students, I'm always picking up the latest issue of our student-run newspaper, The Daily Free Press. My favorite regular feature is a humorous column called "Interrobang", asking how BU students would respond to a hypothetical topical scenario, such as "How would BU students compete in The Hunger Games?", "How would BU students raise money for a presidential campaign?" etc. The "answers" are usually pretty funny, describing how students from each college would react in such a scenario.

As I've mentioned before, I'm an archaeology major and thus part of the College of Arts and Sciences (or as we call it, CAS) while everyone else in BU's chapters of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) and the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is in the College of Engineering (ENG). Therefore, since our membership represents only two of BU's colleges, I'm unable to compile a similar list of answers to the question "How would BU students explore space?"

That was one of the reasons I was so intrigued by the invitation our space clubs received to the event Space: The Business Frontier at Harvard Business School. I'd never heard of a space conference for business majors before. But I didn't have any other plans for that Sunday, so I signed up for a ticket. How exactly would students in BU's School of Management (SMG) or the equivalent elsewhere explore space?

I woke up at 7:15, showered and dressed quickly, and headed downstairs to Starbucks to grab a scone before catching a cab to the business school. The invitation had said "business casual," so I'd found a fancy shirt and blazer, but I was still a bit scared I'd be underdressed. (That had been my first indication that this wouldn't be exactly like any of the other space events I'd been to, where my biggest clothing concern had been choosing the most appropriate t-shirt out of my collection of space-related ones.)

After a brief detour (it turns out that the Harvard Business School is across the river from the rest of the Harvard campus and thus technically in Allston rather than Cambridge), I showed up at Aldrich Hall for registration with a half-hour to spare. I showed my ticket and received a nametag, and met up with BU SEDS president Kevin Zagorski as we waited for the conference to begin. I eavesdropped on a group near me who were discussing pilot Felix Baumgartner's upcoming attempt to skydive from the edge of space.

Soon, we were led to an auditorium where representatives of the business school's Aerospace and Aviation Club welcomed us to the conference and introduced the first speaker, former NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin. Dr. Griffin discussed the difficulties inherently involved in all spaceflight -- government or private, as well as the challenges of turning a risky but successful voyage of exploration into a routine tourist trip -- "The day after the Vikings crossed the Atlantic, we weren't quite ready for Carnival Cruise Lines." (Being a CAS kid rather than an SMG kid, I'll admit I didn't understand everything Dr. Griffin meant when he was talking about "optimal percentages of return on investment" and the like, but it was nice to know in general that there are statistical ways of calculating the most profitable course of action for a spaceflight company.)

After Dr. Griffin's keynote, we had about five minutes to mingle before the first panel discussion. I talked with a woman from Raytheon who was sitting in the row behind our SEDS group -- I always have to remind myself that their headquarters is in Waltham, not too far from Boston, because I'm so used to thinking of tech companies as being out west. A friend of Kevin, Joe Landon, was scheduled to speak on the panel as a representative of his angel investment group, Space Angels Network, but we were able to chat with him beforehand. (I told him his organization's name sounded like a rock band, which made him laugh -- "Maybe we should start that as a side project.")

This panel dealt with "Financing Space," discussing the issues involved in finding investors for a space company and making it profitable. One particular issue that was near and dear to my heart was simply -- "Making sure the investors understand what you actually do," given that hearing about space travel gives so many people far-out visions of science fiction stories. A woman from a company that developed communications satellites said that she'd been asked by an investor: "So if the satellite breaks, will you send somebody up to fix it?" (While faulty satellites -- most notably the Hubble Space Telescope -- have indeed been fixed by space shuttle astronauts in the past, her company's were too high-up to be reached by the shuttle.)

After that panel, we had another five-minute break before the next one, setting up a sort of rhythm. This one was a special presentation on the topic of spaceports by Stuart Witt of Mojave Air and Space Port and Karin Nilsdotter of Spaceport Sweden. They're friends and collaborators, and it showed in the way their halves of the presentation interlocked. Mr. Witt's spaceport in California was the site of SpaceShipOne's suborbital flights, as well as numerous other rocket tests, so he was able to speak from experience about the day-to-day running of a spaceport -- he described himself as a "landlord" with some very interesting "tenants." Ms. Nilsdotter spoke about marketing her spaceport and making it a part of the surrounding community -- the city of Kiruna is home to a special physics-focused high school and space camps open to students from all over the country. And while they aren't quite ready for commercial spaceflights yet, they've put the city on the tourist map by offering a hotel made of ice and airplane flights that allow special viewing of the Northern Lights.

I was especially impressed by Ms. Nilsdotter's belief that Spaceport Sweden would need people with all kinds of talents to succeed -- one of their conferences included a presentation by a chef who had created a meal inspired by the Northern Lights along with more traditional talks by organizers and rocket engineers. After the talk, I hurried down to meet her and explained how her belief resonated with my experience as the only archaeologist in a club full of engineers.

"You're a pioneer!" She announced with a smile, giving me her card. I blushed and thanked her.

Kevin had signed our group up to have lunch with Mr. Witt, which turned out to be very lucky, as he had some really great stories to tell. He showed us the slides for another presentation he'd given about "The Necessity of Risk," featuring some first-hand photographs from his time as a fighter pilot. I asked Mr. Witt what his most memorable moment running Mojave Air and Space Port had been.

Well, he told us, it had certainly been memorable when the police had chased a robber across the airfield -- especially when they'd started shooting! And he'd certainly seen a lot of interesting crashes, although most had thankfully occurred without any injuries.

But his proudest moment had unquestionably been seeing SpaceShipOne pilots Mike Melville and Brian Brinnie return home after flying into space. He told us he still got teary-eyed thinking about how the crowds had cheered when they'd climbed out of the spaceplane after their record-setting flights and set foot back on Earth.

I told Mr. Witt that he should collect his stories into a book when the spaceport reached a momentous anniversary, with contributions from employees from all of the companies that had operated out of it. He said that he'd gotten some offers and was definitely considering it.

After lunch, the panels seemed to go by much quicker, and I was able to catch up with Steve Isakowitz, Chief Technology Officer of Virgin Galactic, who I'd interviewed back in October when he came to BU to give a talk. He said he'd been doing fine since we'd last spoken, and that he'd enjoyed reading the blog post about his talk.

Casually, he asked me my graduation year.

"2015." I said.

"Oh, you've got a ways to go, then." He said.

"Yes." I agreed "You know, back when SpaceShipOne flew, I said to myself 'I know the first few years, it'll be really expensive and booked solid, but my first year out of college, I'd like to take a ride with them.' Do you think that's possible, based on your current development schedule?"

Mr. Isakowitz smiled. "By the time you get out of college, we're going to be old technology!"

"That's great to hear! Thank you!" I exclaimed, in a perhaps un-business-like manner.