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.

KBR signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA's Johnson Space Center to provide private astronaut training in NASA facilities. Photo via NASA.gov

For 60 years, Houston-based KBR has supported NASA's astronauts. Now, though a recently signed Space Act Agreement, KBR will also be providing its human spaceflight operation services to commercial companies.

"KBR has pioneered space travel for more than half a century. We will leverage our domain expertise to assist private astronauts with their human spaceflight activities," says Stuart Bradie, KBR President and CEO, in a news release.

The arrangement will include KBR training private astronauts on NASA property — it's the only agreement of its kind. KBR will train for space tasks like operating onboard of the International Space Station, routine operational tasks, health and performance checks, responding to emergencies, and more.

"This historic agreement is a testament to KBR's long standing partnership with NASA. We will continue to work together to propel NASA's mission to fuel a low-Earth orbit economy and advance the future of commercial space," Bradie continues in the release.

Earlier this week, Axiom Space, a Houston-based space tech startup, announced it was selected to design a commercial space flight habitat to be attached to the ISS. KBR is among Axiom's professional partners on the project.

Image---Axiom-modules-connected-to-ISS KBR is one of Axiom Space's partners on its new NASA-sanctioned ISS project. Photo via AxiomSpace.com

The Axiom project includes plans to replace the ISS with a commercially operated space station. The targeted launch date for the commercial destination module is set for late 2024.

Both the Axiom and KBR agreements with NASA are in line with a shift toward commercialization within the space industry. Last June, NASA released its plan to introduce marketing and commercial opportunities to the ISS — with financial expense being a main factory.

"The agency's ultimate goal in low-Earth orbit is to partner with industry to achieve a strong ecosystem in which NASA is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities at lower cost," reads the release online.

In an interview with InnovationMap last July, NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez explains that opening up the space industry to commercial opportunities allows for NASA to focus on research. The government agency doesn't need to worry about a return on investment, like commercial entities have to.

"With the commercial market now, people keep talking about it being a competition, but in reality we need one another," Gonzalez says. "We have 60 years of history that they can stand on and they are doing things differently that we're learning from."