31st Space Symposium

I imagine that my time in Colorado Springs during the week of April 13th was a lot like what some first-time attendees at the Star Wars Celebration (also occurring that week, in LA) were going through. Surrounded by geeks and famous names in my own passion, attending the 31st Space Symposium was like something you might win in a sweepstakes. Except I wasn’t there just as a fan of space. Somehow, I had managed to impress someone enough to be invited as a speaker. What? Yes, I still don’t believe it either. I guess some background is required.

When I joined Twitter in late 2008, it was mostly because it seemed like something the cool kids were doing, and I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t hip. I didn’t think I would use it much. I definitely didn’t think I would find 2,000 people out there who wanted to hear about my job at NASA. It turns out that Twitter, or social media in general, is a great way to stay in touch with the things you care about in the world, and to connect with like-minded people, no matter where they live. This is how I ultimately ended up on stage at the 31st Space Symposium last week, talking about my job as an ISS flight controller. A fellow flight controller, half a world away in Germany, followed me on Twitter and recommended my name as a good representative of the Houston mission operations community for a panel she was helping to organize. It seems like a 21st century idea – to give a professional recommendation for someone you have never met face-to-face!

Our panel, called “Controlling the ISS: Global Collaboration and the Contribution of Young Professionals” was made up of four of us from ISS ops: one each from Houston, Huntsville, Germany, and Japan. Our moderator, retired astronaut Leroy Chiao, was commander of ISS during Expedition 10, his last of four flights to space. Getting ready for the conference was a bit like what we do daily in the ISS program; we had to find a good time for a Google Hangout video conference across 4 time zones in 3 countries. Our first “hangout” all together was at 6 AM in Houston, noon in Germany, and 8 PM in Japan! Our second hangout was at the Space Foundation’s Yuri’s Night party in Colorado Springs, two days before our panel!

It was a unique experience to find oneself with so much in common with people from literally all over the world. Culturally, we are from at least 3 totally different backgrounds (two of us being American) but we share a common language in ISS operations speak. I learned throughout the symposium that this is a theme of the space business these days, and is exactly why the Space Foundation put our panel together. There is a large industry of space and space-related companies and organizations out there, all trying to do similar things. Why allow the barriers of politics, geography, and culture to stand in the way of a shared passion? It was international collaboration that has made the ISS so successful, a success very visible to everyone else trying to do big things in space. Even the military panels had discussions about how cooperation and collaboration across international borders is the path to global space security, and the ISS is often referenced as a model for those efforts!

Our panel was just a one hour session in a full week of panels, speakers, and technical forums. We had a marginal audience of maybe a hundred people – there were concurrent sessions about satellite design, military space situation awareness, and of course the ever buzzing exhibit hall was open. So I feel content that we had a decent audience at all – not to mention Bill Nye came to listen. The pressure was on… one of my childhood heros was going to listen to me talk…

One hour of talking goes really fast when you have 5 people on stage, but we managed to cover some good ground: from what it takes to be a flight controller, to working with the Russians, to challenges of international collaboration, to the Chinese space program, and more. My co-panelists of course had some great things to say, but I thought I would recap a bit of what I covered, since it is what I remember the best!

When prompted by Chiao to address the impact of the Ukraine crisis and other geopolitical tensions on ISS, I noted that we don’t see the effect of politics at all at the working level. I explained that the mass media’s narrative of the program, with Russia holding all the cards, misses the big picture. The Russians can’t just stop flying NASA’s astronauts to the space station as a political tool if they want to keep the station running. Successful ISS operations is not one-sided, but involves contributions from all partners. Russia provides our launch vehicle but NASA brings much to the table also. I gave the example of how the Russian thrusters and American gyroscopes (CMGs) are both needed together if we intend to fly ISS for another decade. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The ISS needs both Russia and the US equally, in its current operational model.

When China was discussed, Chiao asked us “if the political issues were overcome, what would it take to add China to the program?” something I learned from Andrea (my co-panelist from Germany) is that ESA already has a relationship with the Chinese program and their astronauts learn Chinese. As for NASA, we currently don’t have a direct relationship with the Chinese program (it is tricky, since they do not have a clear delineation between civil and military space industry). I did note that adding any new player to ISS, no matter who they are, would present challenges, especially if they would be a new equal partner. Processes like mission management teams and flight rule boards would require additional coordination. I also pointed out that the current relationship NASA has with Russia did not start with ISS. Following the fall of the USSR, we built a relationship of trust through stages of operations such as flying astronauts on each others vehicles and then with the Shuttle-MIR program. A similar phased in approach would be needed with China or any new country that we have never worked with before.

I also fielded a question about debris avoidance on ISS which allowed me to give the example of the Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM), which is a triumph of international collaboration. The procedure allows the US mission control team to direct the crew to send the reboost command, using the russian segment computers and rocket engines, even if none of the Russian planning team is on duty in Moscow. This capability enables more rapid response to a debris threat but also requires a great level of trust on the part of our Russian friends. I think this is a great example of the successful partnership we have built with the ISS. When asked about the future of spaceflight, I remarked that it would be wise for any future programs, no matter where we go, to be an international endeavor. It would be a shame to waste the lessons we have learned since the concept of Shuttle-MIR was formed in the 1990s.

We even had time to field a few good questions from the audience, including the predictable “what would you tell someone who wants to be a flight controller?” Fortunately, we talk about this often at work, so I explained that even though our intent is to hire steely-eyed engineers with great technical knowledge and aptitude, we don’t put a huge emphasis on grades when hiring. More important is a proven ability to learn and adapt and especially to work with other people and communicate clearly. I spend infinitely more time in my job communicating in many ways (verbal, email, console logs, etc) than doing any math that looks anything like what I studied in college. Mission operations is all about working in a team environment.

The Space Symposium this year placed an emphasis on young professionals with an entire track for “New Generation Space Leaders”, featuring an evening reception with Bill Nye and a luncheon with Dr. Ellen Ochoa (astronaut and director of JSC) as keynote speaker. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of those “New Gen’ers” who came up to us after our panel and thanked us for sharing about working in the ISS program. Before the Symposium, I imagined my fellow young professional attendees to be made up primarily of young engineers excited about New Space – wanting to build rockets with SpaceX, Xcor and Virgin Galactic, and not interested in the slow bureaucracy of NASA. Fortunately, I was proven very wrong! It turns out most everyone still thinks NASA is cool, and wants to hear about working there. We even had a few people try to give us their resumes… of course I gave them some advice, but had to tell them to just check the job postings online!

One of my favorite things I noticed was that almost every booth in the exhibit hall, and all of the videos played at award dinners and luncheons, tended to utilize imagery of the ISS at some point. Even the FedEx booth had the ISS on their booth’s banner, with the phrase “mission control” prominently displayed. They very much want to help out with ISS – by transporting precious experiments and cargo to the launch site, or home from splashdown.

One lesson I have learned from this Symposium is that NASA and the ISS program should be very proud of the example we are setting, and should not be shy about telling our story, because it is a good one. At the same time, it is a wide world of spaceflight industry out there, with thousands of people working on their own projects, regardless of NASA. If we don’t keep up with them, they will leave us behind. That is why I am honored that my company and NASA trusted me to attend the conference based on an invite obtained through social media. It is also why it is great to see NASA embracing social media in the broader context – giving astronauts free reign to post to Twitter without a pre-screening (at least it looks like there is no pre-screening!) and allowing so many flight controllers, flight directors, and others to engage with the public online.

With the ISS program now solidly moved from “assembly” to “utilization” phase, and with social media now something most of the world understands and uses, I have a new confidence that the general public will learn about the ISS and the space program and will be supportive of further exploration. The days of meeting people on the street who don’t even know we have a permanent space station are coming to a close – at least that is my hope! I do realize that going to a conference full of other space geeks is like going into a bit of an echo chamber. But my confidence comes from the support across programs and companies for the future of space. No longer do you hear other space fans referring to the ISS as an expensive “boondoggle” – at least not at the Space Symposium.

And regardless, even if some do still feel that way about the ISS, the symposium showed me that the space industry is a big place. For instance, even if Sierra Nevada doesn’t get the ISS cargo contract for their Dream Chaser, they have agreements with Japan and Germany to use the vehicle – it will get built anyway. A lot of wheels are turning and there are a lot of people out there doing amazing things. The Symosium had panels about the new Europa clipper mission (and the advantages of flying it on an SLS), about constellations of satellites providing broadband internet to the world, about the United Arab Emirates’ new space agency. The list goes on. For me, a young engineer who has only had one job and has not really traveled abroad, going to the Space Symposium was like leaving home for the first time and seeing the size of the world. There is so much to do, so let’s work together and get it done!

April 26, 2015 6:00 pm

2 Responses to “31st Space Symposium”

  • April says:

    Ben, thank you sooooo much for sharing your experience at the Space Symposium!! I wish we all could have traveled up there to see you speak on the panel! It sounds like you had a lot of great input for the moderator’s and audience’s questions. Jealous about Bill Nye, but absolutely thrilled to call you a colleague!!

    • Ben H. says:

      April, thanks so much for reading, and for your excitement. Maybe we can get Bill Nye to come tour mission control and we can all meet him. See you at on console!

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