FROM THE ASCEND TEAM: Get ready for a virtual gathering unlike any other

BY NATHAN BOLL  |  ASCEND Program Executive

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person events, ASCEND was going to be unlike traditional conferences. Rather than a forum focused on technological advances, we’ve designed ASCEND from the outset to encourage people to work across disciplines to advance space exploration, propel commercialization and ultimately pave the way for off-world civilizations.

“ASCEND will be a new kind of conference,” says Tory Bruno, United Launch Alliance president and CEO and a member of the ASCEND Guiding Coalition. “It will incorporate formats that involve more discussion on thought-provoking topics, rather than the traditional, passive listening to papers and updates on important, but dry topics. ASCEND will have greater appeal and utility for early career professionals and students while also offering the depth and sophistication that can be appreciated by senior industry experts.”

Now that ASCEND has moved online, it is likely to attract a far larger global audience than an in-person event would. It’s also likely to bring in young professionals and students who might not have opportunities to travel to conferences.

“We are very excited about the potential of this new format to energize our community and reach people unaddressed in the past,” Bruno says.

Similarly, Robert Lightfoot, vice president for strategy and business development at Lockheed Martin, ASCEND’s Inaugural Cornerstone Founding Sponsor, calls ASCEND “a great opportunity to engage the next generation.” Lightfoot, a member of the ASCEND Guiding Coalition, adds, “I need that next generation in my workforce like all of industry does.”

ASCEND attendees will gather virtually 16-18 November to share technical and other insights, while hearing from dozens of speakers, including NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, and Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin executive chairman.

ASCEND’s Guiding Coalition, a who’s who of U.S. government and space industry leaders, offered AIAA advice on top-level themes and helped invite conference speakers. Then, members of the space community contributed the vast majority of ASCEND programming through hundreds of papers and session proposals.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne is proud to be part of the first ASCEND event, which is taking a holistic look at the exploration, settlement and commercialization of space — from technical, business, policy and aspirational viewpoints,” says Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Jim Maser, the senior vice president in charge of the Space Business Unit and a member of the ASCEND Guiding Coalition. “Bringing together a diverse group of thought leaders to discuss and debate their ideas and views will help to move the whole industry forward.”

Nonscientific aspects of creating a sustainable space economy, including building a diverse and inclusive workforce, are high on the ASCEND agenda. The event will highlight the achievements of space community women and minority leaders, providing recognition for their work and examples for future generations.

“While AIAA has long been a driver behind America’s leading role in aerospace and space exploration, ASCEND will help propel innovation and professional collaboration to another level,” says Boeing’s Jim Chilton, the senior vice president in charge of the Space and Launch division, and a member of the ASCEND Guiding Coalition. “It’s been exciting to see such interest in the broader range of topics and speakers, the new formats for engagement, and the opportunities for participation at every career level and from so many professional and technical disciplines. ASCEND will be a crucible for idea exchange, discussion, debate and friendship that will help shape future space exploration and the space economy.”

ASCEND is an acronym that stands for Accelerating Space Commerce, Exploration and New Discovery. The event will be built around three overarching themes: accelerating the near-term commercialization of space; enabling the long-term human exploration and settlement of space; and exploring the security, policy and legal ramifications of space endeavors.

“The programming will focus on technology, exploration and the future of space,” says Clay Mowry, Blue Origin vice president for global sales and an ASCEND Guiding Coalition member. “In these virtual times, it’s more important than ever to stay connected with our industry on these critical topics.”

ASCEND programming falls into three tiers. Macro sessions will explore overarching questions to help establish a shared vision of the future, behind which the technological, economic and industrial activities propelling the space economy can coalesce. Panelists will drill deeper during Meta sessions to identify the greatest opportunities and challenges of realizing that shared vision, while exploring how specific industries such as communications, construction and mining will help shape the off-world economy. Micro sessions will focus on the details — cutting-edge technical innovations, education and workforce development, legal and policy analysis, and much more — all aimed at addressing the challenges the community is likely to encounter as civilization expands farther in space.

To encourage conversation, networking and collaboration, ASCEND attendees can meet in virtual booths in the Engagement Zone. Also, The Aerospace Corp.’s virtual booth will offer a comprehensive look at Space Agenda 2021, a series of 28 policy papers from the Center for Space Policy and Strategy. Each paper offers an in-depth look at a space-related issue the United States will face during the next presidential term.

“The timing and themes of ASCEND afford the perfect opportunity to share ideas and have conversations around critical topics that define the future of space,” says Steve Isakowitz, Aerospace president and CEO and ASCEND Guiding Coalition member.

“While everyone likes to attend conferences in person to network, AIAA deserves a lot of credit for turning on a dime to transform ASCEND into a virtual event that will offer tremendous value,” Lightfoot says.

Related Topics


At a glance

WHAT: ASCEND, the event to drive the space economy forward, from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

WHEN: 16-18 November

WHERE: Virtual gathering at

WHO: Engineers, policymakers, entrepreneurs, inventors, security experts, educators, investors, government leaders, artists, economists, scientists, students, astronauts, lawyers, business executives and researchers


SPONSORS: Aerojet Rocketdyne, The Aerospace Corp., Blue Origin, Boeing and United Launch Alliance

FROM THE ASCEND TEAM: Get ready for a virtual gathering unlike any other