Tootling Through SpaceCom 2024

Tootling Through SpaceCom 2024

If you’re interested in commercial lunar businesses, I wrote an article about lunar landers and the lessons that can be learned from Astrobotic’s experiences: Evolving Expectations for Commercial Lunar Landers.

I went to SpaceCom for a day last week and had a great time. I figured I’d write about my experience there. So, this piece will focus on some of the conference’s feel and offerings, the venue, a few exhibitors, and a few interesting topics that emerged (unsolicited) while talking with them. For those wondering, SpaceCom never contacted me to write this. These are just my thoughts/observations. 

I’ve not attended any conference since the year of COVID, so it was exciting for me to go into an exhibit hall and learn. The result is this very basic report of the conference, some of the companies I talked with, and maybe most importantly, some of the themes/concerns I heard from the vendors/exhibitors. Oh, by the way–at least in January 2024–exhibit hall access was free.

The Event and Some Comparisons

For those who don’t know what SpaceCom is, it’s the Global Commercial Space Conference & Exposition in Orlando, Florida. It was informal as people wore engineer chique (you know it when you see it), business suits, sports blazers, polos, t-shirts, jeans, etc. It is VERY different from old-school Space Symposium business cosplay requirements.

Before going any further, I must frame my perspective of conferences. When I worked for the Space Foundation, one of the things I enjoyed was working on the Space Symposium. It’s a time when the Space Foundation team pulls together (a little over 50 employees (all underpaid, by the way) when I worked it last) and produces what I consider a great event.

Symposium is a rather large networking spectacle in Colorado Springs, with thousands and thousands of attendees and overflowing halls of exhibitors. The Broadmoor (a hotel/resort in Colorado Springs) currently hosts the Symposium. It expanded its exhibition hall in 2020 to, in part, accommodate the increasing number of the event’s exhibitors and attendees. It’s a big event.

In comparison, SpaceCom had quite a few exhibitors but didn’t look as large (it might even be smaller than Smallsat in Logan, Utah). Part of this impression was due to the location in which it was held, the Orange County Convention Center. The center is a sprawling complex of exhibit halls and rooms. It’s vast, with enclosed walkways linking convention center buildings together. If Space Symposium were ever to be hosted there, it might take up a full quarter of the building that hosted SpaceCom. And, from the maps I referenced for the complex, the building SpaceCom was in was one of the smaller complexes. 

The venue made the conference seem smaller than it actually was, and based on the hugeness of the complex, that can’t be helped. When compared with Symposium, it was smaller, but it was excellent. The food and drinks offered did take the usual convention center cut. Still, the variety was tremendous (including Cuban coffee and sandwiches!), and there were a lot of sitting areas for eating and networking. 

When I arrived, there was no check-in line. Having a smartphone made it very simple, as SpaceCom’s system scanned the code and printed out the badge and receipt. A host was around to ensure people picked up lanyards, a patch, and a coin. For me, it worked.

Hob-nobbing In the Hall

Then, to the exhibit hall. All sorts of exhibitors were there: Astrobotic, NASA, and the United States Space Force. Even the Italian Trade Agency had ample space to promote some of the space companies from that nation. Many of the exhibitors were components, software, or services companies. 

One of the first folks I talked with was there for a company, CICB, that supports and trains everything in the “lifting industry.” And by that, I mean they train people to lift objects using cranes, chains, and other lifting equipment properly. For those wondering why the lifting industry company was there, some space companies have demonstrated that they could benefit from their lift training. They already train folks for a few other space companies (and for airlines, etc.).

One of my more exciting chats was with a lovely couple working on nuclear thorium-based (I think) batteries. The couple formed a startup, Galxyz, LLC (not to be confused with the Pakistani company of the same name). I am not a scientist or physicist, so I can’t judge how viable this technology is. Based on a cursory look at the topic, ideas for thorium batteries and power have been around for decades. The company was very clear that its battery was different from a Chinese nuclear battery advertised a few weeks ago. I tried to keep up with the information the couple provided about their batteries.

The upshot of their nuclear batteries was their potential to power lasers, sensors, electric thrusters, etc., for periods far, far longer than current energy sources allow. They were already providing prototypes for a government contract. While the company seemed to think the technology could be implemented quickly, I can’t help but believe that nuclear batteries (if that is what they really are) are at the very beginning of a new Gartner Hype Cycle. Maybe they can move through it quickly.

Even if successfully developed, other segments of the space manufacturing sectors may need to rethink/re-design a few of their products to integrate the batteries. That would take time, even for the faster manufacturers. The technology was interesting, with potential world-changing implications, but there are a lot of “ifs” attached to it. If it’s able to do what they say it can do. Suppose it can be developed quickly–if it can be scaled up rapidly. If international competitors don’t steal it.

Surprising Space Topics

A few unexpected central topics emerged while talking with the exhibitors. For example, some voiced concerns about large satellite constellations like Starlink. However, they weren’t concerned about the company as a competitor/monopoly. Instead, they viewed it as a potential environmental disaster in the making. Some seemed to think it was a waste of resources to deorbit the satellites as they ended their operational life. 

I agree with their sentiment, but I wonder about the usefulness of outdated tech. Throwing away perfectly good but older hardware because of minor technology updates is a Silicon Valley mindset that consumers have willingly bought into with things like smartphones and laptops. Consumers make that tradeoff assuming that life somehow becomes better for them as they “upgrade.” But those technologies are already hard to recycle here on Earth. Sometimes, consumers must pay someone to take away their old technology to be recycled.

The relatively simple machines (which already are a little challenging to recycle) that consumers use are a far cry from the technology in satellites deployed in the hundreds or thousands. Those orbiting satellites are likely more problematic to recycle, too. They are more difficult to collect for recycling purposes–although, companies like Astroscale, KMI, and Rogue Space Systems are implementing different ways to gather up larger debris and rocket bodies.

What is the alternative to deorbiting spacecraft?

The potentially large number of spacecraft burning up during deorbiting is wasteful. Like throwing away rockets with each launch, some parts of the space industry embrace that wastefulness. On the other hand, orbits are valuable, so clearing the old/broken spacecraft from them makes sense (also–it’s required). These challenges present an opportunity a few of SpaceCom’s exhibitors are attempting to grab. One of those, CISLunar Industries, is testing a foundry on the International Space Station soon. That company is hoping to have several orbital foundries deployed.

Another concern was environmental, but this time about the particulates released into the atmosphere from thousands of deorbiting satellites. Again, this general exhibitor concern surprised me, as the publicity of those studies lasted a short time. Perhaps the thought of thousands of satellites vaporizing into all kinds of little bits in the Earth’s environment sounds like a bad idea, which inspired the vendors’ concerns. 

Those concerns also seem legitimate to me but need a lot more research. Some studies about the challenges of metal in the atmosphere have already made the public rounds. More studying should be done, and solutions should be offered/adopted by the global industry before a problem occurs in which parochial lawmakers have no choice but to step in. No one wants a knee-jerk, localized response to a highly complicated and international problem that potentially stops everything.

Two other observations: even though the word “commercial” appears in the conference’s title, that wasn’t focused on in the hall, based on the companies I collect data about. Sure, businesses exhibited in the hall. However, there were very few commercial space operations companies, no operational launch companies (Astrobotic was showing off its version of a sounding rocket), and few space services.

Not to downplay the businesses there, but more global space economy participants exhibiting in the hall would have been welcome. I didn’t listen to the speeches (that’s what reporters and transcripts are for), so perhaps that focus was there. I’m sure SpaceCom would have liked more participants, too.

Last one: none of the exhibitors I talked with used the word “innovation.” Not one. This is how normal people talk, and it was refreshing.

Overall, though, it was one of the smaller events I’ve attended. Not as small as World Satellite Business Week, but smaller than (possibly) SmallSat in Utah. However, it was well-run, had a moderate selection of exhibits, and had good food options (this last is a bit of a Symposium pain point). More importantly, it was a fun and educational event. And the price was right. Worth attending.

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