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Orlando conference seeks to lay out U.S. future in space

Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy speaks at the opening of the Space Mobility Conference at the Orange County Convention Center. (Richard Tribou/ Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

The Space Force could use a little guidance. So could the commercial space industry.

That’s the gist of what the first Space Mobility Conference aimed to grapple with Tuesday as a single-day lead-in to the larger SpaceCom at the Orange County Convention Center that lasts through Thursday.

About 1,100 participants were on hand to hear leaders from the military who were joined by government officials and executives from companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Space to knock around ideas for what will be the future of space, specifically where rockets will launch from and how their payloads — whether cargo or people — will get around once off the ground.

“We needed to get our arms around it,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy who leads Space Launch Delta 45 and the Space Force’s Assured Access to Space program. “This whole conference was set up with the purpose and intent to focus on these particular missions of launch, spaceports, on-orbit maneuvering, refueling, etc. to be able to get us to kind of crystalize and move forward.”

Purdy gave the opening keynote speech before a day’s worth of panels during which members at times spoke directly to Purdy, who sort of acts as the CEO of how the Space Force handles its needs, including more than $2.5 billion in top-secret launches and other programs.

“The fact that we were talking directly was just awesome, and that’s the intent. We hope to take lots of action items out of here and get moving,” Purdy said. “This is not to be a normal conference or a normal industry day. This is a working conference to do better.”

On the docket were sessions ranging from the cleanup of orbital debris to point-to-point rocket travel on Earth to creating supply depots in space.

Open debates on how much of a say the government should have when exploring new technologies was at the forefront. Some raised the specter of a growing Chinese space presence and the need for the military to drive the innovation train vs. letting private companies figure things out on their own.

Gil Klinger, who has had feet in both the Department of Defense and commercial industry during his career, was on one panel in his role now as a consultant wagging his finger at both sides of the coin.

“Government people don’t have the first clue about how industry works,” he said. “What’s scary is how many think you actually do. The only thing that is equivalent is how little private industry understands how the U.S. government works.”

There were calls among panelists to reduce the amount that’s classified by the government, and pleas from spaceport panelists for federal infrastructure investments. Others urged commercial partners to share more information, and dozens of other talking points that pointed out a variety of problems facing those who venture into space and how they can be tackled.

Some urged the government to let go of the ways that worked in the 1960s.

Lt. Gen John Shaw, deputy commander for U.S. Space Command under the DOD, acknowledges the need to grow.

“I don’t want to be in the solution business today. I want to lay out the problem,” he said noting a greater reliance on commercial partners to solve the needs of the U.S. military in space, but adding, “I really feel the answer to further space mobility infrastructure is a combination of both.”

One example he gave is not being able to use the satellites already in orbit to their full ability, because they’re 10 to 15 years old with a limited power supply.

“You’ve got to drive it like a Toyota Prius,” he said. “The fuel’s got to last. … because that’s how we’ve always built them. We’ve got to change that.”

He’d rather be able to dive them like a Corvette, he said.

Commercial partners that can resupply those satellites faster or create an infrastructure that allows for refueling are two aspects of improvements to allow for “maneuverability without regret.”

“We can’t keep doing things the same way,” he said.

The need to look forward to the next generation of the U.S. presence in space is more imperative than ever, Purdy said. Launches from Florida’s Space Coast, for instance, have increased from 31 in 2021 to 57 in 2022 to a projected 92 in 2023, with liftoffs from the other U.S. spaceports also projected to increase.

The cost of going to space is falling with the capacity to move more metric tons supporting a larger space infrastructure, both in low-Earth orbit and beyond including plans around the moon.

Purdy noted the day produced a big to-do list.

“We have lots of action items. No need to volunteer because we have all your emails,” he said to the crowd. “This is also a workshop. This is about taking the next steps. This is part of the plan.”


© 2023 Orlando Sentinel

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