Event Kicks Off New Era of Science in Space

June 20, 2017

A wide range of people from students and scientists to business people and educators gathered at Columbia University recently for the first conference on a burgeoning approach to science in space: conducting that research in collaboration with the private space industry. One participant compared private space science today to the early days of the biotech industry.

The Dawn of Private Space Science (DPSS17), held June 3-4, “opened the conversation between multiple stakeholders interested in the future of science in space,” says Dr. Szabolcs Marka, a professor of physics at Columbia and president of the Science Partnership Fund (SPF), the nonprofit that organized DPSS17 in partnership with The Planetary Society. DPSS17 was hosted by Columbia University.

Historically, research in space has been supported by the government. Today, however, such opportunities are limited, funding is scarce, and it can take years to prepare and carry out a mission. “But government-backed experimentation is not the only option,” says Dr. Mark Jackson, a theoretical physicist, founder of SPF, and the organizer of DPSS. “By connecting key players, new protocols can be established to make space exploration more accessible and mutually beneficial for scientists and private companies alike.”

DPSS17 featured over 20 talks on everything from the prospects and challenges of privately funded space science missions to citizen science in commercial space exploration. All talks were livestreamed and are available at the following link . Follow the continuing conversation on Twitter at #DPSS17.

A Burst of Oxygen

“This was really the first time I've seen substantial, meaningful discussion take place about science and private space - a couple years ago a lot of what seemed to be happening in this area felt very fringe-like and full of old white men with axes to grind. Not anymore. DPSS17 was a burst of oxygen, diverse, energetic and r ealistic ,” says Dr. Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia and a DPSS17 speaker who gave a talk titled “Astrobiology: the Science of Life in the Universe.”

“[Private space science] is where biotech was 25-30 years ago and is poised for an explosion into the commercial space just as biotech did after a period of skepticism by scientists and others,” says Dr. Sandya Narayanswami, treasurer of SPF and former director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Caltech. Narayanswami’s DPSS17 talk: “Soliciting Support from Foundations and Corporations.”

Gregg Maryniak, co-founder and secretary of the XPRIZE , also addressed the rise of private space science in his talk, “Igniting Science through Prizes.” The most important takeaway from his presentation? “The principal barrier to space science today is the cost of launching things from the Earth,” he says. “The XPRIZE ignited a wave of revolutionary space activity and as a result, we are now seeing a new group of space companies with a radically different style of operations that are increasing the rate of launches and lowering the cost of access to space. We are only at the very beginning of the dramatic effects that will be triggered by increased flight rates and decreased cost of spaceflight.”

The Importance of Collaboration

Participants also noted the importance of collaboration in private space science.

“Collaboration across sectors is key,” says Sirisha Bandla, who is in government affairs at Virgin Galactic. “And not just across the government and private sectors, but across different areas of research, their organizations, and the education and nonprofit sectors as well. Collaboration in pursuing private space science will allow for cost-effective and, possibly, more frequent opportunities for projects and missions in this area. In addition, involving the communication and education communities will allow for the growth of public interest in these topics and help build a pipeline for future generations to enter the workforce.”

Dr. Jon Morse, co-founder and CEO of the BoldlyGo Institute, notes that “it was helpful to hear the NASA speaker [Alex MacDonald of NASA Headquarters] say that the federal government welcomes the opportunity to collaborate on future space research with private companies and organizations.” Morse’s talk was titled “Privately Funded World-class Space Science Missions: Prospects and Challenges.”

The most important takeaway from DPSS17 for David Thoreson of the Geoversiv Foundation was connectivity. “Whereas the first race for space was confined to more institutional thinking, the new era of space is moving quickly and making new connections back into the public sphere where the public has more opportunities to participate and educate,” says Thoreson. In his talk, titled “Over the Horizon: The New Era of Climate Exploration,” Thoreson described how research in space can be applied to a very specific problem--climate change--here on Earth, which was especially timely in light of recent changes in policy here in the US.

Energy and Excitement

Several participants commented on the energy and excitement generated by the event.

“Everybody wanted this conversation to continue,” says Dr. Jackson, who gave a talk titled “How to Crowdfund your Space Science Project.” “There’s something really critical about just putting the right people in the room.”

David Thoreson’s favorite part of DPSS17? “Seeing the tremendous excitement with all participants young and old,” says the explorer with the Geoversiv Foundation who talked about climate change. “This is inspiring and hopeful for me as a climate speaker and activist. The potential for our shared work is off the charts and truly exciting in a new era of exploration.”

Tom Armstrong, president of the Madison River Group (MRG), says that DPSS17 “refueled my belief in science cooperation, creative thinking, and man's ultimate desire to advance our understanding of the universe.” Prior to MRG, Armstrong served within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as the Executive Director of the United States Global Change Research Program. His talk at the conference: “The Next Generation of Earth Observations: Linking Microsatellites with Local Stakeholder Communities and Climate Impacts.”

Dr. Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, gave a talk titled “How Commercial Space can Help Astronomy and Planetary Science.” DPSS17, he says, “is the beginning of something big--a whole new way of doing science in space.”

Future Plans

DPSS17 organizers aim to continue the conversations started at Columbia. To that end, the conference included four hours for participants to work on a white paper addressing “the challenges associated with private space science and what we’re going to do about them,” says Dr. Jackson. The white paper is expected to be published this fall.

Some 37 organizations sponsored the Dawn of Private Space Science 2017. Key among them: Fiat Physica , the BoldlyGo Institute , and the Harris Corporation. Other sponsors include Blue Origin , the Keck Institute for Space Studies , Virgin Galactic, and XPRIZE.

By Elizabeth Thomson