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The space mafia: International Space University

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The Space Mafia: a term used to collectively describe alumni from the International Space University.

Last summer, I was given the chance, as a Space Knowledge Transfer Partnership associate sponsored by Innovate UK, to attend the 2016 Space Studies Program (SSP), a modern space summer camp organised by the International Space University.

2016 Space Studies Program, Technion, Israel
2016 Space Studies Program, Technion, Israel

This year the SSP was hosted by the Technion in Haifa, Israel, a country known as the ‘Start-up Nation’. It is said that Israel now has more high-tech start-ups and a larger venture capital industry per capita than any other country in the world.

Bringing together 100 ‘space’ enthusiasts

This year’s program brought together over 100 individuals from over 30 different countries for an eight-week long course. No day is ever the same at the SSP, but a typical one would run as follows.

A morning lecture on space physics given by Jeff Hoffman, one of the astronauts sent to repair the doomed Hubble Space Telescope in 1993.

A hurried lunch at one of many of Technion’s outdoor cafes, basking in a 30°C sunshine.

Haifa, Israel
Haifa, Israel

An afternoon spent at the University hospital state-of-the-art robotic unit to experiment with remote surgery techniques that could one day be used to save astronauts’ lives.

Finally, an evening at the Junta Bar sharing drinks with the former manager of the International Space Station, talking about plans for future space stations.

Living and breathing ‘space’

A summer at the International Space University was much more than all of this. It was also about intensely living and studying with more than one hundred other space enthusiasts.

The intensity of the programme does not bode well for people who seek time alone or personal reflexion --- let’s just say that I was lucky to have even a few hours of sleep. Yet the intensity of the experience is exhilarating and extremely fulfilling.

In a sense, we have become very much like our Sicilian mafia counterparts: a tight-knit group of individuals who share common experiences and belong to an extended family. (Unlike them, we do not aspire for a full-time job in illegal racketeering, but rather share the same passion for space).

Getting a broader view of the space industry

Personally, the Space Studies Program has given me a much broader context of the space industry and its ramifications. Who would have thought drafting memoranda of understanding or preparing intravenous lines had anything to do with space? Who would have thought space art was a thing? Yet, seeing the space industry through a different lens is exactly what we need, as engineers and scientists, as lawyers and policy-makers, and as innovators and artists.

Take the next large human project --- the colonisation of Mars for example. Aside from the monumental technical and financial challenges it holds, what is also important but often left out is a much deeper understanding of its societal and cultural impacts.

The Space Mafia is a phone number away

Eight weeks later, back in the UK, and time now seems to be moving at a frighteningly slow pace. My day is no longer fully timetabled, meeting astronauts has become a rarity, and the prospects of spending my lunch break at an outdoor pool are slim. Fortunately, the Space Mafia is a phone number away…

Follow me on Twitter: @alex_brinkmeyer

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