Billionaires, costume designers, and beer: I spent a day at the Space Symposium and learned about how the tech elite will conquer the final frontier

  • The 34th annual Space Symposium recently took place in Colorado.
  • It was full of excitement and included a visit from Vice President Mike Pence and rockets being built by tech billionaires such as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

There were four themes at this year’s Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado:

1. The rising influence of tech billionaires such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, and Virgin Group’s Richard Branson.

2. The fact that between trade shows and the space industry, augmented reality and virtual reality have found their business use case – especially both together.

3. Everyone is working on putting humans on Mars.

4. Space-based businesses are booming, with billions of dollars of venture funding pouring in annually.

Here’s a look at my trip to the Space Symposium, and what I learned:

The annual Space Symposium took place in April in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

Colorado Springs is the home of the Air Force Academy and the Cheyenne Mountain NORAD Complex, an underground nuclear bunker.

While Colorado is famous for its high country (in more ways than one), it has become the nation’s second-largest space economy after California. Colorado is home to more than 400 aerospace companies, which employ 25,000 private aerospace workers, according to the Colorado Space Coalition.

The industry group the Colorado Space Coalition has the cute tagline “One mile closer to space.”

In fact, a small airport in Colorado is expected to achieve FAA approval in August to become a space-launch port. There are only 10 other space ports in the US.

Virgin Galactic, the space company owned by billionaire Richard Branson, is expected to use it as a launch point.

One of the stars of the show was the Dream Chaser spacecraft, built by Sierra Nevada. It is a reusable shuttle that can carry stuff to and from the International Space Station.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

It won a contract to do six trips between 2019 and 2024. In other words, some new competition for SpaceX. Another shuttle, built by Orbital ATK, also won part of the shuttle contract.

Another star of the show was the latest Blue Origin rocket engine. This company was founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who is trying to make space travel more affordable.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

Blue Origin is building reusable rockets for travelling to and from space.

The Blue Origin rocket on display was the latest model, the BE-4.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

The CEO of Blue Origins spoke at the conference but under a top-secret track that required government clearance to hear the talk.

Gwynne Shotwell, the COO of SpaceX, was also at the show. She spoke at a dinner for new Space Technology Hall of Fame inductees. Everyone was talking about the billionaires making big moves in space, including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson.

YouTube/TED 2018

Space activist Rick Tumlinson called them the “Billionaire Calvary,” and credited them for the exploding venture investment into space companies. Those investments amounted to $US3.9 billion last year alone.

This show attracted participation from international space agencies, such as Germany’s DLR program.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

At the show, the DLR was inducted into the Space Hall of Fame for its lasers that can beam data around space, giving internet connectivity to aeroplanes, satellites, internet balloons, and other airborne devices.

Unlike casual dress tech industry conferences, the Space Symposium, composed mostly of military and military contractors, was strictly business dress.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

One person told us a story of how a company’s technician tried to get on to the show floor to fix something, but were denied entry because they were wearing jeans.

When Vice President Mike Pence spoke, the show organisers told journalists that they would be kicked out if they wore jeans or tennis shoes. They wanted dress slacks, shirt and tie for men, and skirts/blouse, dresses for women, although dress slacks were considered OK, too.

Business Insider/Space Symposium

They sent this out in an email. The email also said the vice president was going to deliver his speech, but would not take questions or do interviews.

The White House published his speech here. In addition to praising the military, NASA and the Trump administration, Pence also mentioned that NASA would be constructing a Lunar Orbital Platform.

NASA later said it would be looking to award contracts for construction of the platform in 2019.

NASA’s booth was a highlight too. It featured a contest called the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, where NASA is asking people to try to design items astronauts need to live in space. NASA will be giving out a total of $US3 million in prize money for winners.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

One of the things NASA wants is “sustainable housing solutions” that will use advanced materials and whatever dirt, rocks and the like available on Earth, the moon and Mars.

NASA representative Janet Sudnik told us the story of Ted Southern. He was a Victoria’s Secret costume designer. He designed some comfortable gloves for astronauts that won second place and $US100,000. He used the money to start up a company, and just won a contract for full space suits.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

The company is called Final Frontier Designs. By the way, the winner that year,Peter Homer, who won $US200,000 and went on to win another design contest, and also founded a space-suit company. He also works for SpaceX.

Two things were everywhere: References to going to Mars, which all the big aerospace companies are working on. Elon Musk even wants to colonize Mars. And virtual-reality and augmented-reality headsets, which had a presence in many booths.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

Lockheed Martin, for instance, let showgoers try out this VR demo of what it might be like to go to Mars.

At Boeing, it was the Oculus Rift.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

I demoed a training simulation that flew me to the International Space Station.

Microsoft’s HoloLens was everywhere, too.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

Here I am at the Raytheon booth, along with a group of appropriately dressed businessmen, using software developed by Charles River Analytics.

The software shows how space-management control operators would use the device to track various aircraft on a 3D map.

There were so many HoloLens demos at the show that Microsoft even had a small booth.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

It used the booth to show off the HoloLens goggles.

Of course, the show also had objects from space you could touch, like this meteorite.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

It was heavier than it looked, composed mostly of iron ore. I was told that because this particular iron rock came from space, it cost as much as a car: at least $US35,000.

In the afternoon, I left the conference and drove a few minutes to the Space Foundation, where they have a museum, open to the public, filled with artifacts from space missions.

Space FoundationSpace Foundation

This is a must-see for any science and space lover visiting Colorado Springs.

There are space suits.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

This is, alas, only a replica, of the suit worn in 2007.

But this is the actual space lab used in training astronauts in the 1980s and 1990s.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

My guide, Rachel English, is the curator of the museum, and she’s particularly proud of this exhibit.

But there are dozens of really special pieces on display and lots of educational content for kids and adults to enjoy.

In the back, I found this showcase of all the surprising businesses that have been founded using technology from space.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

It includes everything from helmets to footwear to toys.

Space technology has led to engine lubricants for Earth-bound engines.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

This lubricant was created in conjunction with teams at NASA, and it is said to last longer than traditional varieties. And it’s biodegradable, to boot.

This beer drinker’s guide to Colorado (there are a lot of micro-breweries in the state) used NASA technology too.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

The guide includes a map that was created using technologies developed for space. Because once you come back from space, the first order of business will be drinking a beer with your buddies.

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