Monday, September 29, 2014

IAC 2014 - Day 1: Blast Off

"Dude, Buzz Aldrin just walked by..."  This type of thing happens at a major space conference, but as someone who has only been to a few such events, it stopped me in my tracks.  I paused, and considered the significance of the moment when that man walked on the moon forty-five years ago.  Aldrin is 84 years old now, but he still moves well (fast enough that I decided not to chase after him for his autograph).

Today, the International Astronautical Congress kicked off with an exceptional opening ceremony featuring a couple of astronaut MCs and Cirque de Soleil performances.  However, it was the musical performance of Peter Katz that really stole the show - he spoke to the 3,000 audience members about the importance of dreaming and following those dreams.  He then went on to blow everyone in attendance away with his amazing voice and songwriting; that was my friend Peter Katz, upstaging Cirque de Soleil.  The event closed with a fine speech by astronaut/rock star Chris Hadfield.

At the convention centre, it is hard to keep up with the fascinating information that constantly flies in all directions.  During the head of agencies event, I learned that only 40% of spacecrafts sent to Mars actually make it there.  It takes most countries many tries to succeed.  India's space agency (ISRO) recently made history by succeeding on a Mars mission on their first try.

I went to the exhibition area where all major international space companies and agencies have large displays and representatives.  SpaceX has the most impressive one in my view - they truly are unique among space engineering companies.  Over the past few years, they have been quietly preparing a multi-billion dollar space vehicle that will shuttle seven astronauts to and from the ISS.  At present, the Russian Soyuz is the only spacecraft that can accomplish this task.  I had the opportunity to sit in a prototype of the seat of the SpaceX spacecraft that a future space commander will sit in - pretty cool stuff.  A note to aspiring engineers: the average age of SpaceX engineers is just 28.

I moved around during the technical sessions.  First, I attended a symposium on "Gravity and Fundamental Physics".  The talks there were by and large about missions that aim to challenge the theory of general relativity.  Very fine instrumentation, which can detect accelerations on the order of pm/s/s, is mounted aboard a satellite, and then, based on position, any slight deviations from theory can be deduced.  A lot of talk about tolerances; not exactly my cup of tea, nor is it my area of expertise.  That's the thing with technical talks - you almost need to be an expert in the field in order to follow along.

I switched to the symposium about Rocket Propulsion.  One talk was about a new liquid propulsion  system in development.  The speaker said little about how the liquid combustion or turbo-pumps worked, but showed a number of nice pictures of in-test thrusters.  I had never seen a test station for a thruster before.  Spewing fuel every which way while a rocket is in flight is one thing, but is not desirable in your typical lab.  A compressive force gauge senses how hard the thruster pushes, while the propellant is collected on the other end.  One can imagine the precautions associated with collecting high temperature fuel being exhausted at extremely high speed (it would suck to melt the lab every time you want to test a propulsion device).  The speaker said that his company's new liquid propulsion system will be ready by 2018.  

The next speaker was from Russia, and was presenting some work that was done by a colleague who had a last-minute problem with her Visa, and could not attend the conference.  This is not an isolated case at the conference.  In fact, the heads of both the Chinese and Russian space agencies, who were slated to attend the conference, could not, due to Visa issues.  It appears that this was actually a deliberate slight by the Canadian government.

See you on Day 2.

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