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Las Cruces-Area Business: Time To Be More Ambitious About Spaceport America

Commentary:  My career or any career needs to be nurtured. Careers were on the agenda at NMSU last week because of homecoming. Successful alumni who serve on various advisory boards were on campus, including my former boss who now works at NASA’s Langley Research Center. He still works in the area of technology development. He was the one who started our Student Launch program in 1994 by designing the original student payload. He worked on the TDRSS satellite system at White Sands Test Facility before he came to NMSU.

Last week I presented a research paper at the International Astronomical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico where I witnessed Elon Musk’s presentation on his ambitious vision to make humans a multi-planetary species. The presentation is on the SpaceX website. Elon Musk created a rock star event at an otherwise typical space conference. And, last week, the title sponsor of ISPCS changed jobs. Clayton Mowry, now former president of Europe’s launch company, Arianespace, jumped ship to do business development with Jeff Bezos’ launch company Blue Origin. Bezos is the founder of Amazon.

When I met with Clay in Guadalajara he was hosting a commercial space symposium. He brought the presidents of Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and two other companies to speak about the status of their technologies designed to provide lower cost and faster access to space. As I stood next to him during his new boss’ talk, I asked, "did you ever think you’d be doing this?" From the inside of his eyes out to his wrinkled brow, no, he said, never. Did I ever think the title sponsor of ISPCS would become a competitor? Yes, of course. Success breeds followers. I have commercial space conference competitors. One is called SpaceCom, it is in it’s second year, in Houston. AIAA just hosted a commercial space summit at their Space Forum in Long Beach. These competitors will be at ISPCS, because they are also partners with ISPCS.

Business is personal. Companies have stories, and really good leaders become part of the story with the company. Leaders create, they influence and for sure, the good ones are ambitious and foster ambitions in their staff. Ambition is rampant in the commercial space community. Acceptance of ambitious women is still shaky ground for some. Bill McDermott, the CEO of SAP, wrote about his own ambition in his book "Winner’s Dream." When he was hired at Xerox, he told his boss his ambition was to become the CEO. It was perfectly fine for him to say that out loud. The company nurtured his ambition, honed his sales skills and eventually groomed him for greater leadership opportunities. He took the tough assignments including becoming District Manager in Xerox’s last place district, Puerto Rico. Within two years, Puerto Rico became number one is sales in the US. That’s how ambition turns into opportunity. Results, driven by performance and discipline. Opportunity for some, not all. Not yet.

Performance is tougher to measure in an industry like commercial space. There were no UPCs or universal product codes to describe the movement of goods in the industry when I started ISPCS. Wall Street was uninterested when I visited the New York Times, and Wall Street Journal in 2007. I interviewed with their science and technology writers, and all they knew about was Richard Branson and the XPrize. There was no commercial space industry. That was the same year Elon Musk spoke at ISPCS. He is the founder of SpaceX, and Tesla, and partner in Solar City. Elon has an ambition that is beyond what Bill McDermott describes as necessary to move forward within a corporate culture. Elon lives in a different world than most. He does not follow, nor does he work like most. His company, SpaceX, was the first commercial company to resupply in the International Space Station. He was writing the commercial resupply proposal to NASA when he stopped in Las Cruces to speak at ISPCS.

The day before Elon was to speak he called to cancel. What! You have to, I said. Pat, I am just too busy. Elon, you promised, and we have a press conference scheduled with other speakers including Peter Diamandis the founder of the XPrize and the Google Lunar Lander Challenge. What do you want me to talk about, he asked? I want to you speak on how you will impact humanity on the geologic scale. He agreed. If I faltered, hesitated or did not have that answer, we would have lost him. Ambition requires readiness and constant vigilance. That is ambition but not on the scale that Elon rolls on. He plans to send humans to Mars. His team is working on a new rocket called the Raptor which will carry up to 200 people for $200,000 to Mars. The trip he estimates will take 60 days one way. The vehicle will be refueled in flight. He will reuse the first stage booster which will fly back to earth, be refilled with fuel, and then rendezvous with the Raptor to enable it to reach Mars. That’s ambition. That’s impacting the species on a geologic scale. Two hours before his talk, people started lining up. Thousands. I witnessed what will come to the space industry, it will come here. We want to be ready. Competitors have ambitions. Virgin Galactic is getting closer every day. In the meantime, we need to get ambitious. Dan Hicks is a great choice for our community as the new executive director of the spaceport.