out of this world

Bill Nye shares the future of space exploration at Houston's annual SpaceCom

In his SpaceCom 2019 keynote address, Bill Nye shares the breakthrough technology he's been able to develop at The Planetary Society. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

According to Bill Nye, known to most as "The Science Guy" but who now leads the largest non-government space exploration nonprofit, humanity has always asked two questions: How did we get here and are we alone.

"If you want to answer those two questions, you've got to explore space," Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, says in his keynote address at Houston's annual SpaceCom.

The conference, which took over downtown Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center for November 20 and 21, welcomed a record number of attendees from all over the world. Throughout the two days, 2,500 space fans, experts, and professionals from around the world engaged with panels and programming as well as the exhibit hall full of dozens of space companies.

In his keynote address, Nye walked through the history of solar space studies and breakthroughs, from Johannes Kepler's 17th century observation of the sun's solar force on comets to Carl Sagan's work to develop a completely solar powered spacecraft. Sagan, who was a mentor to Nye, passed away in 1996 and didn't get to see his dream become reality.

Nye, however, has accomplished Sagan's goals, and the technology he and The Planetary Society has developed is low cost and completely citizen funded, representing a huge step toward democratizing space.

"We built two spacecrafts for $7 million," Nye says of LightSail 1 and 2.

The first iteration didn't last long, but LightSail 2 equipped with CubeSats — small but mighty satellites — became the first controlled solar sail spacecraft completely propelled by the sun. Solar sails use radiation pressure from the sun as an energy source reacting with extremely thin reflective material that makes up the sail.

The device, which is still in space, represents a lot of potential for long-term space missions since no fuel is needed. While there have been light sails launched in the past, LightSail 2 was the first iteration to be able to be steered from earth in a timely manner. (The device can be turned in a matter of minutes.)

"With this technology, we can democratize space," Nye tells the crowd, sharing that just a few hours before, Time magazine named the technology as the most innovative invention in aerospace.

Nye says that while the work he is doing at The Planetary Society came about as a group of engineers trying to solve a specific problem, the results they have found and the feedback they received represent the world's interest in continuing space exploration in a cost-effective and feasible way.

"Space brings people together," Nye says.

The panel of experts discussed the Space City's history — but also its future as a leader in space exploration. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Houston's been known as the Space City for about 50 years since "Houston" was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon. But whether or not that nickname will continue to stick was up for debate at a 2019 SpaceCom panel on November 21.

The panel, entitled "Regional Benefits of a Commercial Space Economy: Case Study Houston," the panelists set out to discuss the city's rich history of space exploration, as well as to answer the question of where Houston's space industry is headed.

"We could ask that question in a passive way, but my preference is that here in Houston we ask the question now, answer it, and be very proactive and deliberate about making sure we get the outcome that we want," says Vernon McDonald, senior vice president at KBR and moderator of the discussion.

If you missed the enlightening discussion, here are a few takeaways from the panelists.

"Houston is in this great position to be this beacon to lead entrepreneurs and inspire other regions to explore further."

Rick Jenet, director of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy. Jenet, who is based in Brownsville, Texas, is working to develop a vibrant commercial space hub in South Texas. In a lot of ways, the area looks to Houston's history for its development, he says.

"We built a community of engineers and scientists and a workforce that's all vested in the outcome of the human space flight program."

Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines. The creation of the Johnson Space Center developed generations within the community of scientists and engineers, but, moving forward, Houston has to be intentional about building its talent base. "I'm very passionate about doing that here in Houston," Altemus adds.

"There's a beacon of hope for our community if we can organize around it and attract commercial business here to keep this city the Space City, but redefine ourselves as a commercial space hub."

Altemus says, adding that it's going to take further development, talent, and funds — like what's happening at the Houston Spaceport — to make this transition.

"Over the years, Houston took space for granted. Houston started to focus on the bigger industries that brought in funding and jobs."

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA's Johnson Space Center. At the risk of being unpopular, Gonzalez mentions that the city's attention has been diverted from space exploration. However, he adds, there are new initiatives from the Greater Houston Partnership and Houston First that are picking up the slack.

"The answers to Houston delivering on its potential is going to be collaborations — how well we collaborate."

Harvin Moore, president at Houston Exponential. Houston is collaborative, and the city needs to make sure its resources are inclusive as commercial space develops in town.

"I'd like to say that Houston is the birthplace of human space flight, and in 50 years, I'd like to see the city be the leader and the point of the spirit for human exploration internationally and commercially out in mars and beyond.

Altemus responds when asked about the Space City's next 50 years.

"I think what Houston will be most proud of in 50 years is that we played an extremely important role in shaping how Texas leads the world in commercial space exploration."

Jenet, who mentions that there's space exploration innovation happening statewide.

"When you think about what [leading space exploration] company will be here fifty years from now, I don't think it's been created yet. But I would like that company to be here in Houston."

Gonzalez says, adding that the first trillionaire is likely to make his or her fortune in the space industry, and he wants that money here in Houston.

"A lot of our future is not going to be based on what huge companies or government are doing but much more about entrepreneurs."

Moore says, emphasizing the need for developing startup resources in Houston.