ISDC 2011: There’s a story in here somewhere

I attended the International Space Development Conference(ISDC) this year and gave two talks. I’m a veteran of many conferences, but outside of SpaceUp (full disclosure, I’m the founder of SpaceUpDC) this was my first space conference.

After my “inspiring kids by thinking big in space” and “Google Lunar X PRIZE” panels I was asked by adAstra magazine to do a piece on the conference to go along with a technical piece on the conference. I set out to be honest and this is the result. It was rejected by the magazine. Here it is:

ISDC 2011: There’s a story in here somewhere

Humans are naturally passionate and possess a deep need to make a lasting impact on the world they live in. The modern world places as much emphasis on style as it does substance. Doing science and engineering is different than communicating science and engineering.

The National Space Society’s annual International Space Development conference has historically been the place where big announcements are made and ideas are stretched. Huntsville Alabama, the self proclaimed “rocket city” seems a fitting place to hold an event designed to attract international participation where rockets are a central figure in the story.

Despite the town being battered by tornadoes just 2 weeks earlier, the conference was executed well. If there were logistical issues, the average person didn’t notice. This is an excellent gauge of the organizers ability to put on a conference like this. Very difficult for paid professionals, nigh impossible for unpaid volunteers. We owe them a standing ovation for that.

During the event, attendance was discussed a number of times.

“800 registrants this year. Amazing!”

If you’ve been to large conferences before, you know the feeling they can have. The good ones are electrifying. Ideas are flying around and the energy is palpable.

And this year’s ISDC was amazing. People came from all over the world and shared ideas. In fact, the number of ideas was staggering, and that is where the problem lies.

All of this individual passion could have been channeled into a single purpose, but it wasn’t.

Space is very, very large. To even talk about exploration there requires many facets of imagination and understanding, but they can’t all be on the agenda at once.

All of the elite restaurants of the world are really good at only a handful of things. A focus on a theme is essential to success. To pull off a 5 star restaurant, multiple disciplines must be executed flawlessly from planning, to ordering logistics, down to the temperature in the room. We don’t talk about all of those minute details when we speak of the restaurant. The menu is what tells the story and gives focus to the chef, and most importantly, to the people who want to eat there.

The space industry needs desperately to work on how it crafts its story. We call it “lack of strategy” or “lack of focus”, but it’s really a problem of terrible storytelling.

Great storytelling involves characters, conflict, dialogue, setting, and impact, but in the space industry concepts are described in terms of cost versus benefit or engineering specifications. Not even people talking about engineering specifications are excited about what they are talking about. Every once in a while, conflict makes it into the story, but the characters are always flat, and the dialogue is boring.

The theme of the conference was “From the ground up” but that wasn’t the focus. There was no passionate discussion that rallied around this theme. This disconnect has nothing to do with the way the conference was organized, it was a problem of the space community’s ability to do what a restaurant needs to do. We need a simplified story to tell when talking about, planning, and strategizing. There aren’t 5 or 6 items on the “menu” at ISDC, there are 5000 and that just doesn’t work. No 5 star restaurant has so many menu items. To have so many would confuse and bewilder the patron and leave the restaurant without a satisfied palate, just like space industry pundits have to put up with every day.

The theme “From the ground up” is too nebulous. It doesn’t invite strong opinions which are often needed to drive ideas forward.

For next year, the theme should be “Disruption”. This idea is much more polarizing, needed for the sake of discussion and movement. If a passionate tone is set from the beginning, the result will be passion in the people who attend. Sure, there will be some arguments and everything will not always be nice and pretty, but it’s better to say things and mean it than say things to keep everyone happy.

Identifying possible points of disruption and then debating them is a healthy exercise. Just like a forest fire is painful (and hot) in the short term, the long term benefits are well understood and often essential to the forest’s growth.

Audiences react to the idea of “rising above” something. It’s time to put forth real challenges and tell stories in a compelling way that causes a buzz that leaks out into the rest of the world. The National Space Society and it’s International Space Development Conference is the right organization to create this movement.

6 thoughts on “ISDC 2011: There’s a story in here somewhere

  1. With my Disruptor hat on, I completely agree with this. It’s impossible to focus on everything, by definition. Focus requires exclusion, which means a big-tent conference like ISDC has trouble driving toward a goal while also encouraging everyone to participate. Taking a slice that many people can identify with (even if they take wildly opposing views on it) might work.

    With my Article Editor hat on, I can see why AdAstra rejected this. If I was your editor, I would ask you to put more meat on the skeleton of how the next ISDC could be focused. Which presentations, discussions, and attendees from this year would be highlighted with a disruption-focused conference? Which ones would be excluded, even though they’re crowd favorites? The resulting article could still make your point, but the tone would be informative rather than dismissive, and interesting even after the point was made.

    1. I agree that there could be some examples, but that’s not why it was rejected.  They were looking for something that said the NSS is awesome, this was the best conference ever, and we should all come flocking back next year. 

      The editor feedback wasn’t: “it needs some examples” or “it feels like it’s not wrapped up”, it was “… after all, this is a publication of the National Space Society and we want to promote the conference and future conferences, as well.” <– therein lies the problem with doing a magazine about your own organization. 

      I was surprised when I was asked by the conference leadership to attend and organize a GLXP panel, and surprised later when I was asked if I would write a piece about it in the magazine. I didn't mean to suggest that I was surprised that it was rejected. I'm fully aware that the tone of AdAstra is not along the lines of what I wrote. 

  2. I hate to be “that guy” who nitpicks style rather than addressing substance, but if you’re going to submit something to a magazine, you should run it through a grammar checker.  There are at least half a dozen small mistakes in your article.  “Neigh” should be “nigh”, “pallet” should be “palate”, “a event” should be “an event”, “forests” should be “forest’s”, “communities” should be “community’s”, and “five-star restaurant” is probably better off hyphenated, although a lot of people consider that optional.

    1. Thanks Steve, we’ve corrected these.  This article was not rejected for 5 grammatical errors, their editor could have fixed those in seconds.  It was rejected because they didn’t like the content.  

      I heard from the ISDC chair who said he actually liked what I had to say here.

  3. Mike – I just saw this article as I was compiling my final press report for ISDC 2011.  I say, KUDOS.  You told it like it is.  I can’t believe Ad Astra rejected this article (oh, wait, I’m now intimately involved in this organization – yes, I can believe it).  I am the duly-elected chair of the Public Affairs Committee for NSS. Even though I’m not technically a PR person, I took it on because I believe the organization needs more direction in this area and I have at least a little experience.  They have a long way to go.  I have volunteered to do the PR for ISDC 2012, only because there is so much work that needs to be done and they don’t have anyone to do it.  I have admired you and your work, ever since Karen told me about our mutual connection and I looked you and your activities up on the Internet.  If you’re willing, I’d love to get together for lunch or something sometime just to pick your brain.  You pick the place, I’ll pay the tab….  Deb

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