Just before my ASAP Media colleague Michelle Duga and I landed in Orlando Sunday night to attend the March 2-5, 2015 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, our JetBlue pilot directed those of us seated on the left (east-facing) side of the plane to watch carefully—a rocket was about to take off from Cape Canaveral. Sure enough, within 30 seconds, what looked like a red-orange rose from the ground thousands of feet below, climbed in a fiery arc, and disappeared in the upper atmosphere. It was a nice harbinger of this morning’s keynote talk by Dale Ketcham—a second-generation veteran of the space industry that has sparked my imagination since I was a preschooler watching a small black-and-white screen as capsules orbited and astronauts bounded across the moon.
Today’s space industry is very different—far more competitive and collaborative—than the government-led race into space that many of us grew up watching. That’s a very good evolution, according the feisty chief of strategic alliances for Space Florida, the tiny 30-person state agency that routinely tangles with giant and powerful players as it seeks to sustain and grow Florida’s historic role at the world’s foremost “port authority” for travel into space.
“Putting a man on the moon is the single greatest human accomplishment, at least in our world,” Ketcham explained. “But it created a template by which all future programs are judged—and that’s a terrible template.” Essentially, NASA got a blank check to defeat the Soviet Union in the space race—and it paid off, he said, but the effort was driven from the top down. That’s one reason it was so easy, once the public lost interest, for U.S. President Richard Nixon to kill the Apollo program in the 1970s, he added.
By the 1980s, the space shuttle program revived the space industry—and very importantly, when Canada began to contribute its technology for robotic space arms, it started a trend toward collaboration and away from a top-down, command-and-control industry. This collaborative trend has grown gradually but surely in the years since, first among governments, and then increasingly in the private sector. NASA prodded two of its giant private sector contractors—Lockheed Martin and Boeing—to work together on the shuttle. By 1996—in part, to ensure unemployed former Soviet scientists didn’t build rockets for rogue nations—NASA joined forces with former competitors in Russia for the international space station, now involving Japan, Brazil, and many European countries.
Necessity has been the driving force of this growing trend of space collaboration. Simply put, “we can’t do it without each other,” Ketcham said. Even today, despite the tremendous strain on U.S.-Russian relations, “the last part of our relationship that would break is in space,” he said. “We are going to be a space-faring species, so it’s important to know how to cooperate internationally.”