Thursday, 25 September 2014

Looking Back at Canada's Last International Astronautical Congress

Commercial Displays at IAC 2004. Chris Gainor photos.

Next week I will be in Toronto for the 65th International Astronautical Congress, the world's biggest annual meeting of people involved in the exploitation and exploration of space.

This annual event first took place in Paris in 1950, and it has rotated around the world since then, taking place last year in Beijing and scheduled for next year in Jerusalem. The meeting at the Metro Convention Centre, which goes from September 29 to October 3, is the third to take place in Canada - the IAC also took place in Montreal in 1991 and in Vancouver in 2004.

These meetings draw thousands of delegates, including astronauts, leaders of space agencies, managers, engineers, scientists, business people, lawyers, and even historians like me.

I took part in the Vancouver IAC ten years ago, and as the Toronto IAC approaches, I am reflecting on what has changed and not changed in space in the decade that has passed since the Vancouver meeting.

That meeting opened on October 4, 2004, which was not only the 47th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik but an historic day for space in its own right. That day SpaceShipOne completed the set of flights to the edge of space that won it the $10 million Ansari X Prize, heralding a new era of private space flight. That news created expectations that the day when tourists would be able to fly on short suborbital flights to the fringes of space was only a couple of years off.

A decade later, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is still undergoing test flights and except for the handful of multi-millionaires who have been able to afford scarce seats on Soyuz spacecraft flying to International Space Station, the dream of space tourism remains on hold. No doubt this prolonged delay would have surprised those hopeful attendees at the Vancouver IAC in 2004.

Although Virgin Galactic's work to establish suborbital space tourism has moved at a slower and more deliberate pace than had been expected, it has met no serious setbacks, and there are hopes that the first flight with tourists on board will happen in the next year or two.

Other private space efforts have moved ahead in the past decade, usually with the help of governments.

At IAC 2004, I picked up a t-shirt and cap promoting a then-new firm called SpaceX, which has since created the Falcon 9 rocket that has established itself as a new force in the space launch field, and the Dragon spacecraft that is already carrying supplies to the ISS. Although a recent SpaceX experimental launch failed, the fifth Dragon delivery mission to the ISS arrived at the station this week, and SpaceX won the go-ahead last week from NASA to build a spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the ISS. The firm has prospered to a large degree because of the Barack Obama administration's policy of supporting private space launch providers.

The success of SpaceX relates to another event from 2004 - the George W. Bush administration's decisions to end the Space Shuttle program, which duly happened in 2011, and replace the shuttle with a new booster and spacecraft. The Bush administration's replacement program still exists as the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft, which are still years away from operational flight. These vehicles are competing with new rockets and spacecraft being created by SpaceX and other private sector providers supported by the Obama policy.

China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei (right), appears but doesn't speak at the Vancouver IAC.

Another big event at IAC 2004 related to China's space program. Late one day, word arrived that the next morning China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei, would make his first North American appearance at the IAC. Less than a year earlier, Yang had rocketed into space aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, serving notice that China was a rising space power.

Even though most of the astronauts who attended the IAC attracted little notice, Yang's appearance caused near pandemonium. In spite of the short notice, one of the larger rooms in the Vancouver Convention Centre was packed at the announced time of Yang's appearance, and he got a standing ovation from the large crowd as soon as he arrived.

Yang never spoke during the presentation about his flight, leaving all the talking to an official of the Chinese space agency. Cameras flashed throughout his appearance.

I was scheduled to give a paper at the same time, but everyone, including me, wanted to see the world's newest space hero. So we adjourned our history session and I gave my paper later that morning once Yang had gone.

Since then, China's human space program has moved at a deliberate pace. Four Shenzhou spacecraft with larger crews on board have followed Yang into orbit, the last two docking with China's first space station, Tiangong-1. China has also sent spacecraft to the Moon, most recently a robot that soft landed and then deployed a rover.

But more controversially, China has also developed military capabilities in space, notably an anti-satellite weapon that was used destroy a satellite in 2007, creating a serious and ongoing space debris problem. Tense relations between China and the United States caused NASA to reduce its presence at last year's IAC in Beijing.

Another 2004 event that reverberated at the Vancouver congress was NASA's successful landing of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars, signifying the resuscitation of NASA's Mars exploration program. Today Opportunity is still roaming the red planet, along with the larger Curiosity rover that landed two years ago. The Toronto congress takes place a few days after NASA's MAVEN spacecraft and India's Mars Orbital Mission were successfully inserted into orbit around Mars. The latter event has served notice that India has joined the ranks of the world's great space powers.

As the world's space industry heads to the Toronto congress, all these issues from ten years ago are still active. 

As well, the Toronto meeting will take place under the shadow of the ongoing tensions arising out of Russia's attacks on Ukraine that have pitted Russia against the United States and other space powers, including Canada.  Aside from some verbal threats, these tensions haven't yet affected the operations of the ISS.

Like other spheres of economic activity, the space industry is emerging from the protracted economic troubles that got under way in 2008. Activity in space by private firms and government agencies took hits from the recession, and next week we will see how far the space industry has bounced back.

1 comment:

  1. The manager at San Francisco restaurants tells you how it is and is open and honest to guarantee your event is flawless, and you leave floating on air because you're so blissfully happy!