THE ASI WORKSHOP AND THE FUTURISTIC SHOW-BUSINESS

by A. Autino


Two sunny days after rain, before more rainy days. This was the meteorological frame for the ASI's "Futuristic Workshop" held at Trieste, May 6-7, 2001. The weather inside the Workshop wasn't as nice...

ASI managers made their best, though the Italian Agency is in the middle of a complete reorganization, and such political void results in a lack of strategic vision.

But the Workshop was quite disappointing, and this is not a fault of the Italian Agency alone. Of course, some interesting papers were given.

The Workshop was ambitiously entitled to "futuristic technologies". What it appears clearly from this event, much more clearer than at the IAF/IAA congress (being the IAC congress a gigantic congress, where you can never be sure not to miss the really meaningful events), is that the long distance view of the agencies is a mix of romanticism and science fiction, while the short distance view is nothing more than a business_as_usual view.

Just to start, though everybody keeps on speaking about private investors, no private industry was present at the Workshop. In the meaning of agencies, it was a sort of interagency forum on the technology needs and opportunities in the long term. People that had something to say in this respect were invited. Likely it was not the right time to invite more private enterprises (yes, but when will come that time?!).

I had also saw with interest some non-space company representatives, just to learn how they think  about human's future in space. Maybe it could be the turn of a Workshop on policy and planning, more than on technology. But I doubt that anyone will think about such a possibility.

Again, to do so one should have a strategy, therefore to have something to communicate. We had, it is true, many qualified presences form the Research and University world.

The first day was devoted - in the aims of the organizers - to the current or feasible technologies, while the second day tried to push the view on a longer distance. The first day was introduced by Gentry Lee, chief engineer at JPL, co-author of science-fiction books (with A. C. Clarke), and a good communicator, too (it was evident that he is used to stay in front of the cameras). After some reasonable considerations about people's feeling ("people wants the humans to explore the space, not robots") Lee passed to explain his conservative vision of the 21st century and next 20 years in space: no permanent settlement on Mars during this century (while it would be technically feasible in 25/50 years). The only affordable goals are some exploration ones.

Exploration of Mars (the program of which was well exposed by C. Whetsel, of JPL) was the leitmotiv of the whole Workshop. Almost nobody, with the sole exception of Marco C. Bernasconi in his good report, spoke about industrial use of the near Earth space and resources - beginning with the lunar ones. There were no Moon plans, Space Tourism was barely mentioned, as well as Solar Power from Space. But Lee, in order to explain his minimalist paradigm, said two times: "money, money". Thirdly he named the political will ("if a visionary would sit at the White House."). Notwithstanding such emphasis on money (utterly logical: money is important because the Agencies only spend it!) the activities which could really bring a return of ... investment within a time horizon acceptable by an investor (Space Tourism, Solar Power from Space, Moon) are fully neglected. OK, we already analyzed the agencies policy. This is just an additional confirmation, but I still find it difficult to understand that only very few voices sing a different tune, sometime.

The only thing I can guess, both on the agencies side and on the space business, is an extreme fear to risk: they perfectly know that the government funds will be reduced an year after another, but evidently they hope that some good space-entertainment program can re-fire the attention of the public opinion, and thus re-open the tap of the state funds. Of course space entertainment, or info-tainment (as it was mentioned by dr. W. Seboldt - DLR) can be a good source of financing and a mean of public education, for a sound astronautic enterprise... but how to judge a plan strategically founded on entertainment? In few words: better to be clowns than to run some entrepreneurial risk! The entertainment strategic setup is evident: the Moon is not sexy enough as an exploration-show target. The answer of dr. Lee to my comment after his speech was clear: "Apart the possibility to mount some telescope on the dark side, we have nothing to do on the Moon!". As I told, a plan based on entertainment could also somewhat appear a not so bad plan, since it is, at least, targeted to the big public. One could think: finally the big public will have space at breakfast, launch and dinner. Yes, but how? Like a fashion, to be consumed in one or two seasons. After that the young people will have enough, and will turn their attention to something else. Pure entertainment is not education, and a two-seasons plan is everything but a solid industrial plan. If the next 20 years NASA's business plan (at least for what I can guess from the Lee's speech) is so ephemeral, the strategy of ESA appears fully committed to satellites, for telecommunication and Earth observation, while Astronautics is still a dream far to come.

A positive note: the strategy stated by ESTEC (Mario Lopriore) is to involve more and more the private companies, and to increase the weight of the private sector in space. Also under the push of some organizations grouping small and medium enterprises (i.e. AIPAS in Italy, ASTOS in UK) ESA is opening to SMEs, and this could be anyway a very good and fertile deal. 

About some speechs - Wolfgang Seboldt (DLR), Jacques Blamont (CNES), Robert Cassanova (NIAC), Giuseppe O. Longo (Trieste University), Martin Lo (NASA) - we give a brief report on a dedicated card.

Dr. Bernasconi's presentation is online on the Technologies of the Frontiers and Andromeda web sites.

What it is now clear, to me, are the following few simple things: a veritable (astronautic) space economy has an enormous potential, in the next twenty years, and not in the 22nd century! We (let's say the new lunar current?) have solid economic analyses, business plans, education programs and few but excellent teachers! A different path could be tried: to restart from Universities, to work with them involving courageous entrepreneurs in targeted seminars, to show the path to develop a new Space Economy.


 [013.AA.TDF.1/2002 - 18.05.2002]