Microscopic robots that produce microchips in space, planes that whisk tourists to orbital hotels, flotillas of laser-equipped satellites aimed at enemy missiles, and the colonization of Mars were just some of the more gee-whiz visions put forward at the 16th annual Space Symposium last week at The Broadmoor hotel.
But the recent loss of NASA's Mars Polar Lander, the bankruptcy of the ambitious telecommunications start-up Iridium, the failure of several key anti-ballistic missile defense tests in the last year and tensions between national security and for-profit space ventures eclipsed any all-out, Buck Rogers-like optimism.
Because the space business serves as the backbone of the telecommunications revolution -- with hundreds of satellites beaming data to cell phones and dishes around the globe -- the space industry is central to America's recent economic boom, industry leaders said.
But the burnout of Iridium, which will result in a meteor shower of $5 billion in satellites plunging back into the atmosphere in coming years, was a wake-up call to the industry.
"The effect of the Iridium debacle cannot be overestimated," internet entrepreneur Doug Humphrey told one panel. "It's the most colossal business screwup in the history of the world."
Though some at the symposium think that kind of rhetoric is overblown and that Wall Street will soon recover from any temporary space-phobia caused by the Iridium disaster, Humphrey said investors are now very wary of investing the kind of big bucks needed to put large satellite networks into orbit.
There was also considerable debate over whether the multi-million dollar failure of the Mars Lander, which disappeared into the Martian atmosphere without a peep or a trace, would erode public support for space exploration.
To that end, the U.S. Space Foundation, which runs the symposium, released a survey that showed that Americans still support a wide range of space endeavors, from unmanned science crafts, to the over-budget, delayed, multi-billion dollar International Space Station.
But by far the greatest amount of hand-wringing at this year's symposium went into the growing tension between the U.S. government's national security agenda in outer space and the booming and increasingly global commercial space sector.
Perhaps the biggest bureaucratic brawl involves State Department scrutiny over the export of satellite and rocket launch technology.
"It's still the number one issue facing the industry," said a former congressional staffer who attended the conference but would speak only on condition of anonymity. "It's a huge issue."
Because there's a shortage of launch pads in the United States, aerospace companies have turned to space agencies in China, the Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere for launch pads. After several major U.S. aerospace firms were nailed for failing to follow national security precautions in their dealings with China, the government has increased its oversight of space exports.
But because the State Department handling of such contracts is slow, there's a lengthy backlog of license requests.
"Aerospace companies in other countries are reluctant to work with American firms because they're afraid their projects will get bogged down in red tape," said John Douglass, president the Aerospace Industries Association. "American companies are losing contracts."
Though slogans like "protecting the war fighter" are everywhere in the brochures of U.S. aerospace firms, an officer with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Col. Dave Garner, who oversees Department of Defense scrutiny of exports, was clearly on the defensive during the polite but often pointed forum.
"There are certainly things we can do to improve," Garner told the gathering. "But I will not apologize for making sure that technology is not transferred that could put American men and women in harm's way."
Debate over export licenses eclipsed even other long-simmering tensions between the military and private space sectors. For example, some in "mil-space," as Pentagon satellite warriors are dubbed, want private firms to begin putting defensive weaponry on commercial satellites, to protect them from enemy attack.
The industry has resisted such efforts because they're skeptical of the threat, and because defensive hardware would add too much weight and cost to the rockets that carry satellites into orbit. For their part, some in the military don't want to carry the sole burden of protecting commercial satellites, which now support a huge portion of America's economy.
Tensions aside, much talk at the conference orbited around the multi-billion-dollar codependence between the federal government and the space industry. One of the most potentially expensive defense collaborations now underway is the massive missile defense program that has drawn together a consortium of aerospace competitors to work on "airborne" and "space-based" laser weaponry.
Under various missile defense scenarios, laser-equipped satellites and 747s would destroy enemy missiles in their booster phase before they leave Earth's atmosphere. The trick is to get the missiles in boost phase before the warheads separate, or before decoys detach from the armed warhead.
At this point, however, spokespersons for Lockheed-Martin, the Air Force and other companies concede they're at least a decade away from deployment since they haven't even figured out how such a floating arsenal would get the megawatts it would need to zap incoming warheads.
Such systems have drawn fire from peace activists as aggressive, unnecessary drains on taxpayer dollars, while some arms exerts say national missile defense schemes are risky, unreliable and violate important arms treaties.
"The United States is pushing an arms race in space," said Bill Sulzman, an activist with the Colorado Springs-based Citizens for Peace in Space, which held a protest outside the symposium.
Space watchdog groups from around the world will hold their own gathering in Washington D.C. this week to protest the Ballistic Missile Defense program. Their events may be overshadowed to some degree by the planned protests in Washington over the International Money Fund and World Trade Organization, also set for this week.
Other hugely expensive, publicly -funded joint ventures in space involve less bellicose agendas, however. The most noticeable example is a series of next-generation space planes that could be used to fly satellites -- and eventually even tourists with the bucks to pay -- into space.
Developed under a $1.2 billion public private partnership, the X-33 is one of a series of test drones that could lead the way toward "making space transportation routine and affordable," according to one Lockheed-Martin brochure. Most of the business at the outset would be commercial satellites since the X-33 -- or "Venture Star" as Lockheed-Martin calls the system -- promises to reduce the cost of putting birds in space from about $10,000 per pound, to about $1,000 per pound.
NASA is funding the lion's share ($913 million), while Lockheed-Martin has invested $356 million in the X-33 program, which at this point is only expected to result in prototypes for testing purposes, not a functioning space vehicle, according to company literature.
Meanwhile, other companies are developing their own prototype space planes.
Other aspects of the public sector are gearing up to spend more money to support the booming demand for space services. For example, the branch of the Federal Aviation Administration that keeps track of space-launch traffic is already struggling to keep up. The agency, which will license next-generation space planes and other rockets has requested an increase in funding from $6 million to $12 million in order to keep up with expected increased demand.
Despite the billions being poured into space programs, industry leaders at this week's space conference bemoaned what they said is declining U.S. investment in space, noting that nonmilitary space programs now account for only 1 percent of the federal budget.
But all was not doom and gloom at this year's event. The near doubling in size of the symposium over last year reflects a huge growth in interest in space, largely from the business sector, said organizers. Meanwhile, another major space conference run by another industry group is planned for this fall. (For information on those events see: www.aiaa.org. For information on the space protest in Washtington D.C. this week, see www.globenet.free-online.co.uk.)