The Madeleine Brand Show for January 24, 2011

Space shuttle program ends but space industry alive and well in Southern California

Mercer 3975

NASA/Kenny Allen

Space shuttle Atlantis soars to orbit. The government's space shuttle program concluded its final mission in July, but Southern California has a large community of private astronauts working on commercial space travel.

Southern California is a hub for a new industry: commercial space flight. Though the space shuttle program has been squelched, companies like XCOR and Virgin Galactic are all competing to make suborbital travel a reality.

They and other supporters of private aeronautics have formed a group that meets every month in downtown L.A. called the LA Space Salon.

Simone Syed, a young tech entrepreneur, started the organization with two engineer friends, Michael Clive and Scott Norman. They’re part of a movement trying to bring space exploration back to popularity.

"Space has lost its sexy attitude,” Syed said. She wants to inject the popularity of space exploration back in imaginations, "because it means that people will be more apt to think of it as something interesting, and to not only think about, but perhaps pursue."

In a warehouse space at The Brewery downtown, about 40 people mingle, drinking wine out of plastic cups and wearing name tags. The event brings space enthusiasts of all sorts, including a sculpture artist named Kasey McMahon.

"I've been frequenting aerospace salvage yards, and they have the most wonderful pieces," she said. "They're so exciting. It's very fun to take actual pieces from rocketry and construct them into alternative things."

She’s made an effort to get people engaged with the final frontier. At the salon, there are two of her pieces on display. One features bronze plates etched with images of astronauts and planets. Another is an outstretched hand made of coiled copper wire, reaching toward an object dangling just out of reach.

McMahon said many don’t realize how active the space industry still is.

“The private sector is at a tipping point," she said. "What is fascinating to me is, all of this is going on, all of these things are being built, yet the general public knows little or nothing about it. It's this sort of behind-the-scenes race for the stars."

For the folks attending the LA Space Salon, the sky isn’t the limit. Projects involving commercial space travel, asteroid mining and solar energy satellites are being seriously contemplated. Featured speaker Doug Jones, co-founder and chief test engineer at XCOR said that the ideas that seemed impossible to execute in the past seem less far-fetched than before.

"There's a lot of possibilities to do things in the near future, in the next 10 to 15 years, that will be remarkable, and yet entirely predictable, from the physics and the chemistry of how things work," he said. "The giggle factor has dropped a lot in the last ten years."


blog comments powered by Disqus