A young man who grew up building robots sat behind the wheel of a futuristic car on the floor of a convention hall in downtown Houston, explaining how the vehicle he helped design could bring the world one step closer to freeways full of driverless cars.
"So when I turn the wheel it just moves some sensors," explains Logan Farrell. "The computer than makes a decision about what I want to do, then that'll turn all the wheels however it should."
Zipping around the convention hall, he demonstrates how what NASA calls a "modular robotic vehicle" can actually drive sideways.
"So this is a fly-by-wire car," he says.
Just as Farrell parlayed his youthful interest in robotics into a job with NASA, he and more than 1700 other exhibitors and other visitors came to the George R. Brown Convention Center exploring ways to profit from aerospace technology.
At SpaceCom, the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition promoted as the largest commercial space event in the world, they talked about everything from operating commercial spaceports to flying private passengers to the International Space Station. Astronauts mingled with entrepreneurs interested not in exploring space, but exploiting it.
"We're bringing together over 1,700 people not only from the aerospace industry but also from the non-aerospace industry to understand what the intersection points could be between established aerospace technology and how those technologies might be applied to earthbound activities," said Jim Causey, SpaceCom's executive director.
A high-profile roster of speakers included NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa. Guests registered from 18 countries and the crowd exceeded expectations, organizers said.
"You see business taking place," said Arturo Machuca, the general manager of the Ellington Airport/Houston Spaceport. "You know, companies talking to companies. It's just very, very cool to be able to support this type of development for commercial space."
NASA had a high-profile presence at the event. In addition to a keynote address from the space agency's top administrator, much of the convention floor was occupied by exhibits from NASA, which is passing the torch of space exploration to the private sector.
"I've been with NASA 28 ½ years, so I came in in '87," said Kyle Herring, a NASA spokesman. "And this is a whole different world now. I mean, this is where we need to be going."
Spread around the exhibit hall were everything from space suits to a one-man spaceship the size of a large refrigerator equipped with robotic arms designed for work outside the space station.
Organizers plan to make SpaceCom an annual event in downtown Houston.