Space Takes Center Stage at South By Southwest 2024

Aerospace harnessed Austin's creative and collaborative platform at South By Southwest this year to connect its government partners with industry leaders engaging together, shaping the future of space.
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The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival held in Austin, Texas, continues to gain a greater reputation as one of the aerospace industry’s must-attend events. Indeed, the same internationally recognized creative music and film festival that helps sustain the city’s mantra to “keep Austin weird” has extended its ethos to accommodate the rapidly increasing fascination of the possibilities for space.

SXSW is a product both of the creative fuel Austin provides, producing a platform for companies to converge and collaborate, and strengthening the city’s position as a growing industrial and innovation hub. In its role as a convener and connector across the space enterprise, The Aerospace Corporation is harnessing that creative and collaborative ecosystem to bridge its government partners with venture capital, startups and commercial space companies who find themselves brushing shoulders at SXSW.

“It's pretty unique to bring all of these space leaders together in the same place, where we can try to work through some of the issues we face in the defense, intelligence, civil and commercial communities in bringing innovative solutions into mission systems.” said Dr. Debra Emmons, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Aerospace.

Space in Full Swing

More and more, SXSW is becoming an event that offers new avenues for new creative solutions to hard problems, such as connecting artificial intelligence (AI) effectively to meet modern needs and improving acquisition of new technologies. SXSW has created an opportunity for Aerospace’s government partners to connect across technology sectors, expanding government awareness and promoting industry collaboration through the connections built during the festival.

2024 SXSW Debra Emmons Panel
Debra Emmons participated in the panel, "Outpacing the Threat: Re-tooling Today's Technology and Using AI to Rapidly Address Tomorrow's Biggest Challenges" with Mike Betzer of Hypergiant, Derek Tourner of the SDA and Rob Mitriveski from L3Harris. [Photo: Kaliana Caldwell]

This year, SXSW served as a meaningful forum for key space leaders to announce new initiatives. AFWERX and SpaceWERX—the innovation arms of the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, respectively—leveraged the SXSW spotlight to unveil the 2024 Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) Awards winners during a keynote at Capital Factory, home of AFWERX’s Austin Hub.

Industry and government-led panels dissected a number of emerging technologies, including AI applications—a pervasive theme at SXSW. Emmons joined a Capital Factory panel about the use of emerging technology and AI to "outpace the threat" in space, noting the value AI will offer as space becomes increasingly congested over time.

“It is absolutely critical to be able to monitor and track our space assets,” Emmons said. “We rely on them for our weather, reconnaissance and national security. This is where AI can help, in terms of algorithm development and greater precision, as the nearly 11,000 satellites we have today are forecasted to double in the next couple of years.”

Additionally, SXSW events aimed to recognize groundbreaking technologies and solutions from across space and defense. At the Space and Defense Innovation Showcase – which featured a live, on-stage demo by competing innovators – Aerospace’s Brian Bone, Principal Director of the Commercial Space Futures Office, served as judge of the "Space Technology" category. In addition, Emmons presented the award for "Best Startup Innovation" at the Showcase’s reception.


Telling the Stories of Space

With space at the forefront of SXSW, inclusivity in these discussions was key to bringing ideas and people together. One effort in the movement to foster diverse perspectives, the Space Workforce 2030 (SWF2030) consortium, is a growing coalition of leading companies committed to expanding opportunities for all to ensure the nation’s space industry has the talent it needs to succeed today and into the future.

During the “Branding Space: The Art of Science Communication” panel at SXSW, Sabrina Steele, Executive Director of Aerospace’s Corporate Affairs and Communications, discussed the commitment that SWF2030 companies have made to build a stronger, more dynamic workforce for the space industry.

“What’s different about this initiative is that we're holding ourselves accountable,” said Steele. “We're data people. You can tell we've been reporting out on how we've been doing. In the first year of data, we had eight measures, with a statistically significant improvement in six of the eight areas. We're going to be reporting out here in April [at Space Symposium] how we're doing in the second year, so stay tuned.”

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“Branding Space: The Art of Science Communication” panel featuring Sabrina Steele, Executive Director of Aerospace’s Corporate Affairs and Communications, joined by communication leaders Brittany Brown from NASA, Savannah Horton from the Aerospace Industries Association and Jackie Wattles from CNN.

Steele joined fellow panelists—moderator Savannah Horton from the Aerospace Industries Association, Brittany Brown of NASA, and Jackie Wattles from CNN—to discuss the importance of effective reporting of elaborate scientific ideas to the public, specifically in the aerospace sector. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, a point the all-female panel underscored several times with poignant anecdotes, photographs, and their own presence on the SXSW stage.

“A lot of what you need is role models, right?” Steele responded to the packed room. “Look at these amazing women up here.”

SWF2030 was among numerous exciting discussions that SXSW amplified on its prominent stages. Even the festival’s characteristic entertainment slate had a distinct space bend in 2024, as promoters for Star Trek: Discovery and Netflix’s awaited Three Body Problem adaptation chose SXSW as the venue for their premiers.

“You've got creatives everywhere,” said Mike Nemerouf, System Director in Space Systems Architecture for Aerospace. “Whether you're creative in the film space, creative in the music space, creative in the tech space—SXSW brings all these unique viewpoints together. Making these connections across industries and across disciplines is the recipe for success to breed innovation.”