Beyond NASA: Find stories in the commercialization of space

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By Flickr user Laurie Sullivan Allyson Greene

It’s the final day of the 28th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., and hundreds of aerospace professionals and military leaders are gathered in a ballroom listening to a panel of experts discuss the need for global collaboration. Meanwhile, a dozen journalists and a few representatives from the National Space Foundation are huddled in a small briefing room listening to Bill Nye the Science Guy expound about the need for a stronger focus on math and science education.

If you’re one of those journalists like me who skimped on science in high school and college and lived to regret it, the prospect of writing about the aerospace might seem daunting. But with the space shuttle newly retired to become a museum showpiece and the prospect of commercial space travel gaining momentum, there hasn’t been a more exciting time to cover the industry since President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation in 1961 to commit itself to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade.

Covering the aerospace industry traditionally has meant keeping watch on the byzantine maze of federal agencies overseeing the spending of tax dollars on the military industrial complex. As NASA loses some of its grip to commercial interests, the story is shifting to include broader private investment, such as Tesla founder Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). But the basic premise remains the same: Follow the money.

“There is an extraordinary amount of money spent on OGAs, as the saying goes – other government agencies,” Nye said during a Q&A after his informal talk with reporters. “There is an extraordinary number of spy satellites. There is investment in commercial spaceflight. Ten years ago these people seemed like crazy dreamers. But they have hundreds of people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for this dream. And these aircraft and spacecraft are being built. Money is going there. Money is being spent.”

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Exhibits at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. Photo by Mike Cote.

Nye, whose TV series in the 1990s helped make science popular with school children, alluded to how the shift to commercial spacecraft is already affecting the economies of two Western states. Virgin Galactic is building a $209 million spaceport in New Mexico that will be the hub of its suborbital space tourist rides using its SpaceShipTwo space plane. Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is home to The California Spaceport, a commercial satellite facility and launch center operated by Spaceport Systems International. Business and political leaders in Colorado, which has the second largest concentration of aerospace workers in the country (behind California and ahead of Florida), are trying to get federal permission to create a spaceport near Denver, and several other states have similar projects under way or proposed.

“We’re at a point where we’re going to see a big transition to turn over a lot of the activities to private industry, and that’s really going to open things up, and bring in a lot of new sources of funding and investment,” said George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation with the Federal Aviation Administration, during a brief interview before his keynote speech at the Colorado Space Luncheon during the symposium.

That transition means more businesses will be involved in creating the 21st century version of the space industry, and that covering it will no longer be the focus solely of niche reporters. Reporters looking for story ideas should start by visiting the National Space Foundation website to find links to the major players in the industry and begin following them through their Facebook and Twitter feeds, said Chris Chavez, senior communications manager for United Launch Alliance (ULA). He noted that NASA recently won an award for its social media efforts.

The foundation’s website includes an extensive listing of its corporate members. Logos for each business link to that company’s website, including industry stalwarts like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Pratt & Whitney and ULA, a Colorado-based joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that handles engineering, testing and launch operations of Boeing Delta and Lockheed Martin Atlas rockets for the U.S. government.

“Even though the shuttle program is retired, there is so much going on,” Chavez said. “There’s an aerospace presence in every state in the country including Alaska.”

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Bill Nye talks to reporters at the National Space Symposium. Photo by Mike Cote

Combing through government data continues to be a primary source of story material, of course. Space Week reporter Dan Leone’s recent story detailing plans for SpaceX’s proposed Texas launch site draws from an FAA notice, posted on the Federal Register website, of the agency’s intent to prepare an environmental impact statement.

The news centers at research universities also are a deep source of information and story ideas. More than 300 universities work with the Universities Space Research Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1969. The group’s description of its work exemplifies the wide-reaching influence of the space industry. (The webpage links are part of the original material.)

“From biomedicine to astrophysics, from basic research to facility management and operations, USRA is helping enable the study of the Universe from ground, airborne, and orbiting observatories, the study of Earth from space-based platforms, the development of advanced technologies for complex spacecraft, the human exploration of space by astronauts, and much more.”

In other words, the story possibilities, like the universe, are endless.

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