On Oct. 21, thousands of people from around the world will arrive at the Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington for the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), one of the largest space conferences around. They’ll spend the week filling ballrooms to hear people ranging from space agency leaders to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Jeff Bezos, or trying to decide which of the dozens of parallel technical sessions they should attend.
The IAC starts less than two weeks after another conference with “International” in the name wrapped up, for the last time. The International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) was a two-day conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on a much smaller scale than the IAC, with only a few hundred people and a single track of sessions. Despite its small size, it attracted leading figures: this year’s event included executives from Boeing and SpaceX discussing commercial crew, Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada Corp. to update their commercial cargo efforts, and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic on suborbital spaceflight, among others.
At the end of this year’s ISPCS Oct. 10, longtime conference manager Pat Hynes (“curator” was the title she used) announced to the surprise of everyone that this year would be the last ISPCS, after nearly 15 years. Hynes said later that the departure of some key staff led her to worry that she wouldn’t be able to run the conference as well as she’d like. While no official figures were disclosed, attendance had also been declining in the last few years.
The conference has a unique history. It started in 2005 as the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight (the “and Commercial” was Conferences and community added a couple of years later) on the New Mexico State University campus. It was tied to the X Prize Cup, the airshow-like event the X Prize Foundation ran at the local airport to stimulate interest in suborbital space tourism after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize a year earlier.
But the X Prize Cup ended after a couple of years, in part because the slow development of the suborbital spaceflight industry whose vehicles were supposed to participate in the event. ISPCS continued, though, as the state placed a $200 million bet on the industry in the form of Spaceport America, whose development was announced just weeks after that inaugural 2005 conference.
Fourteen years later, the state may be finally ready to reap the benefits of that investment, as Virgin Galactic begins its long-delayed move to the spaceport. In a conference talk Oct. 9, George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said there were now 125 employees in the area, up from 40 a year ago. Another 40 will be in the area by the end of the year, including new hires and a mix of employees moving from California. By the middle of next year, Virgin plans to start regular commercial spaceflights, attracting a steady stream of wealthy, high-spending visitors to the area.
For much of the last decade, ISPCS was a reminder of promised local benefits of commercial spaceflight, even as dates slipped. It also attracted key government and industry figures to its unusual venue: most years it took place at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Museum, a 19th century setting for a 21st century topic. The venue and smaller audience encouraged networking and, unlike the IAC, there was no fear of missing out on other sessions, since even if you lingered in the courtyard for conversations, the talks inside were broadcast on speakers.
At a reception immediately after the end of ISPCS, attendees digested the surprising news and pondered ways to revive the conference, or hold something like it someplace else. Maybe that’s not necessary, though. ISPCS succeeded in its goal of helping foster a community supporting an emerging part of the space industry while it got a foothold in New Mexico. And there’s no shortage of other space conferences out there, big and small.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.
“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Oct. 21, 2019 issue.