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.