Reporter’s picks: my game plan for IAC

I’ve always thought there was a certain irony in the place Apollo 11 holds in our history. The moon landing was inspired by the Cold War struggle between two competing nations but ultimately celebrated as perhaps humanity’s greatest collective accomplishment. Now, as the U.S. and other nations again set their eyes on the moon, I have to wonder whether this revitalization is motivated by national pride or if we’ll see humanity come together at the moon and reach out into deep space together.

I don’t know the answer, but the International Astronautical Congress seems like a good place to start digging into these ideas.

This five-day gathering of government and industry space leaders from across the globe was first held in 1950 by the Paris-based International Astronautical Federation. IAC is now held in a different country each year, with a local host organization — in this case AIAA — planning and organizing the gathering.

As of this writing, about 3,000 people from 64 countries have registered to attend the event in downtown Washington, D.C. AIAA expects that number to increase to about 4,500. This year’s theme, “Space: the Power of the Past, the Promise of the Future,” pays homage to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 while highlighting the collaborations that will be needed to achieve the next big accomplishment in space.

From brushing shoulders with agency heads to brushing up on the latest space trends, here’s my personal “do-not-miss” list.

Opening Ceremony

Monday, Oct. 21, 9-10:30 a.m. in Grand Ballroom ABC

IAF will present its World Space Award posthumously to Neil Armstrong and to the surviving Apollo 11 crew members, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will give remarks and assist in the presentation of the award, but as of this writing, IAF did not know whether Aldrin and Collins would attend.

Space Agencies: Challenges and Opportunities in a Changing Space Environment

Monday, Oct. 21,1:15-2:45 p.m. in Grand Ballroom ABC

This panel with heads of government space agencies provides broad context for the week’s discussions. If all goes as planned, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the leaders of the Russian, Indian, European, Japanese and Chinese space agencies will discuss the challenges and opportunities they see ahead for their countries, followed by a Q&A with attendees.

From Earth to the Moon and Mars: An Astronaut Roundtable

Monday, Oct. 21, 4:15-4:45 p.m. in Grand Ballroom ABC

Former NASA astronauts Charles Precourt, Kent Rominger and Robert Curbeam, now all of Northrop Grumman, will discuss lessons learned from previous space programs and how those might apply to future exploration efforts.

Exhibit Hall

Open 11-6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 21; open 9-6 p.m.

Tuesday-Thursday; open 9-5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25.

What do the RS-25 engines for NASA’s Space Launch System rockets, Lockheed Martin’s Martian habitat and Blue Origin’s lunar lander have in common? They’ll all be on display at IAC.

As of mid-September, about 250 companies had registered to fill the 20,438-square-meter exhibit hall (that’s roughly four American football fields), making the congress one of the largest space exhibits in the U.S. this year.

The Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space

Tuesday, Oct. 22, 8:30-9:30 a.m. in Grand Ballroom ABC

As the world becomes increasingly dependent on the growing number of satellites orbiting the Earth, protecting that technology becomes increasingly important as well. This panel on conserving space assets will kick off with IAF awarding the inaugural Excellence in Industry Award to Blue Origin. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos will be on hand to accept the award and do a fireside chat immediately before the panel.

Global Networking Forum Storytelling Sessions

Tuesday, Oct. 22, 9:40-10:40 a.m. in Grand Ballroom AB

If you tire of panels and lectures, the GNF sessions offer more laid-back settings to hear from space professionals. In these quick sessions, Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Eric Stallmer will moderate 10-minute discussions with executives from Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Thales Alenia Space, Made in Space, Arianespace and SpaceX. Individual discussion times are listed in the program.

MARSIS: The Successful Search for Liquid Water on Mars

Tuesday, Oct. 22, 6-7 p.m. in Grand Ballroom B

Since the 1970s, orbiting spacecraft have found evidence Mars once contained water, but proof that liquid water was still present remained elusive. Then along came the Italian Space Agency’s MARSIS, short for Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding. It scanned Mars’ south pole from 2012 to 2015, discovering what seems to be a subsurface lake. Enrico Flamini, former chief scientist of the Italian Space Agency, will discuss this discovery in depth and how the sounding radar on MARSIS, co-developed by NASA, could be applied to future exploration of Mars and other planets.

Heads of Emerging Agencies

Wednesday, Oct. 23, 8:30-9:30 a.m. in Grand Ballroom B

For some countries, space is a fairly new endeavor, and that’s why AIAA Local Organizing Committee co-chair Vincent Boles dubs this panel with the space chiefs of emerging space nations “one of the most attractive” events at IAC. Despite their small space programs, “they’re the nations that derive the most benefit from some of the attributes space can provide,” like monitoring crops and other resources, Boles says. As they improve their technologies, these countries could be poised to make global contributions. The heads of the South African, United Arab Emirates, Nigerian, Brazilian and Thai space agencies will discuss these possibilities.

Space Traffic Management: Working Together to Enhance Safety and Sustainability

Wednesday, Oct. 23, 9:45-11:15 a.m. in Room 146A

The lack of geographic boundaries makes issues like space debris and collision avoidance “a world problem,” AIAA Local Organizing Committee co-chair Vincent Boles says. As the number of space actors increases, so does the need for a space traffic management system to monitor and coordinate the paths of satellites, spacecraft and other objects on orbit.

This session will explore the legal and regulatory challenges with establishing space traffic management and the current technology for tracking and monitoring satellites and orbital debris.

Europa Clipper: Making a Mission to Understand Our Place in the Universe

Wednesday, Oct. 23, 1:30-2:30 p.m. in Grand Ballroom B

In 2025, if plans hold, a NASA spacecraft will be launched toward Jupiter to spend three years orbiting the planet’s ice-covered moon Europa to see if its interior ocean could sustain life. The engineers and scientists working on the Clipper at NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab will be joined by Bill Nye of The Planetary Society in a discussion of challenges associated with the mission and the scientific questions Europa Clipper could answer.

IAF World Space Award Highlight Lecture

Thursday, Oct. 24, 6-7:15 p.m. in Grand Ballroom ABC

Apollo historian John Logsdon will moderate a discussion on the legacy of Apollo 11 with award recipient Buzz Aldrin; the elder son of Neil Armstrong, Rick Armstrong; and current NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock.

Public Day

Friday, Oct. 25. Doors open at 7:30 a.m.

IAF traditionally opens the venue and select events to the public, and this year is no exception. On the final day, visitors can tour the exhibit hall, watch a livestream with NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station, and hear from the scientists and engineers building the next generation of rockets meant to carry astronauts and cargo to low Earth orbit and beyond.

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About Cat Hofacker

Cat helps guide our coverage, keeps production of the magazine on schedule and copy edits all articles. She became associate editor in 2021 after two years as our staff reporter. Cat joined us in 2019 after covering the 2018 congressional midterm elections as an intern for USA Today.

Reporter’s picks: my game plan for IAC