Attendees pack the exhibit hall during the 34th Space Symposium’s opening reception. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews

In early April as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation or postponement of one space conference after another, the Catalyst Accelerator made a surprising announcement.

The startup accelerator backed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate invited representatives of small businesses, government agencies and large corporations to Colorado Springs for a three-day event in July called Tech Collisions.

“Although virtual engagements are very effective for those separated by distance or pandemics, there are aspects of in-person gatherings that cannot be duplicated on virtual formats,” said KiMar Gartman, Catalyst Accelerator program director.

If the danger of contracting the novel coronavirus hasn’t subsided by July, the Catalyst Accelerator’s Tech Collisions conference will move online. “Our hope, though, is that the pandemic will be past us and we will be in the early stages of rebuilding our communities and reestablishing those connections that are so vital for our growth and development,” Gartman said by email.

That sentiment was widespread among space industry executives working from home in April instead of traveling as they normally would to high-profile conferences like the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium, Navy League’s Sea Air Space Exposition and U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s GEOINT Symposium.

“When the shows resume, we’re looking forward to participating in whatever manner is practical and safe,” said Paul Welsh, Analytical Graphics Inc. vice president business development.

Lockheed Martin also plans to continue playing an active role in space conferences around the world as conditions permit, said Robert Lightfoot, Lockheed Martin Space vice president of strategy and business.

No one knows when local, state and federal agencies will lift travel restrictions and declare large gatherings safe to resume. That will depend largely on the spread of the COVID-19 virus and progress in the medical community identifying promising treatments and developing vaccines.

In the meantime, companies are relying heavily on video conferencing for everything from staff meetings to customer outreach and hiring.

Lockheed Martin Space is staying in touch with government and industry partners through video and teleconferences.

“Our primary way of meeting customers remains direct meetings, either in person or virtually, and those continue in earnest,” Lightfoot said. “Without the ability to attend conferences in person, we have to work harder to reach out to the space community.”

The Broadmoor hotel and resort, shown in April 2019 during the 35th Space Symposium, is closed through June 28 due to the pandemic. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews

Although companies have embraced videoconferencing as a stopgap measure, conferences are “a very efficient way to connect face-to-face and foster relationships,” Lightfoot said by email. “Conferences give us the ability to meet with many of our government, international and industry mission partners in a short span of time (two to three days).”

During the 2019 Space Symposium, for example, 15,000 people working in civil, commercial and military space traveled from dozens of countries to the Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs for four days of classified and unclassified briefings and events.

The 36th annual Space Symposium, originally scheduled to begin March 30, was postponed until Oct. 31.

“This is the window we were able to find with the Broadmoor,” said Rich Cooper, Space Foundation vice president for strategic communications and outreach. “And yes, we know Oct. 31 is Halloween. No one has better costumes than the space community.”

It’s too soon to say how the pandemic will change the Space Symposium and other conferences. That will depend on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any travel restrictions as well as local, state and federal guidance on large gatherings.

Before the Space Symposium was postponed, representatives of 40 countries were registered to attend. For now, many nations are restricting foreign travel in effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Will those restrictions remain in the fall?

“We don’t know where we will be at that particular point as to what travel restrictions may or may not be in place,” Cooper said. “We will look at all those pieces. We’ve also got to make sure it’s a safe environment that will make people feel comfortable in coming.”

Not all companies anticipate sending executives to conferences this fall, even if widespread bans on mass gatherings are lifted by then. “We’re going to minimize travel and attendance through the end of the year,” said a representative of a company that asked not to be identified. Instead, the company plans to focus its resources on virtual gatherings.

Even executives planning to attend conferences this fall, circumstances permitting, expect the pandemic to leave its mark.

Handshakes may be replaced by elbow bumps as they were at the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington in March. That conference shut down a day early when the District of Columbia banned large gatherings.

At Satellite 2020, AGI, a firm well known for serving ice cream at conferences, gave out hand sanitizer with the company logo. The hand sanitizer was so popular AGI might keep distributing it, Welsh said.

Future conferences also may offer remote access for people who can’t attend.

“Now that we’re all Ninjas in Microsoft Teams, maybe there’s a way to allow people to participate virtually,” Welsh said. “I think we’ll be able to do things even more effectively because we’re skilled in a lot of different areas.”

This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...