Transcript: Space4U podcast, Alex Wagner

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hi there. This is Rich Cooper with the Space4U podcast, a podcast by the Space Foundation that tells the stories of the men and women behind today’s space, programs and activities. I’m joined today by Alex Wagner, who is with the Aerospace Industries Association, where he serves as the Vice President.


For strategic initiatives and as a senior advisor to the president here at AIA, Alex joined AIA after serving at the department of defense, where he served as the chief of staff to the 22nd secretary of the army and where he supported, what I will only call was a. Phenomenal amount of programs over the Pentagon, uh, can imagine how anybody could get all of those things just in the seven years you were there, but a very impressive background prior to that, he worked with Uber as part of their global policy development team.


So he certainly practiced in technology issues, but he also practiced law at K and L and Gates. As well as serving with four different presidential campaigns, he is a security fellow with the Truman national security project and is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown law. So my first question is Alex, are you, you ever not busy?


I think one of the reasons I’ve plotted the career that I. Done is because I’ve always been fascinated at this intersection of law policy technology, and of course, being in Washington politics. And so that’ll keep you busy, but you can find opportunities. And, uh, events and activities and professional areas to focus in that it doesn’t feel like work.


It feels like you’re having fun when you’re doing something that you love. Alex, tell us about what the AIA is and what’s its mission. All right. Well, AIA, uh, as you mentioned, the aerospace industries association, so Washington D DC DC based, uh, advocacy association that represents 340. Members who are focused on space, civil aviation, and defense, and what we call the aerospace and defense industry.


That’s up and down the supply chain from manufacturers to suppliers and even service providers. They’ve got. Bunch of really diverse interests, but you know, the common goal of this association is to make sure the United States maintains its competitive edge and industry is right there to support that.


Let me come back to, when I talked about your intro about, you know, you’ve worked presidential campaigns, you’ve worked for a major company like Uber, a major technology disruptor, and then also being involved with government. That’s a merger of technology policy law. What’s that like with someone find that fun and engaging.


I mean, obviously you’re working in it, so you must enjoy it, but what’s it like, I think that to me, where the action is, there are all these enormous questions today going on with where technology is going and what role government should have. And what AI does is it brings them together. There are certain things that.


Can never take, literally take off the ground without government having a role. If you think about airplanes, if government didn’t plan this system that allows people to feel safe when they get into them, that allows them to understand that they’re not going to crash into each other. Not only when they cross state boundaries, but international boundaries, they wouldn’t have had it.


Or been able to develop a commercial market. Similarly, technology companies have often viewed government is something that can prevent them from growing, but really those that succeed are the ones that find the mechanisms within government to help not only them able their growth strategy, but make sure that they’re able to attract.


And reach the most broad amount of consumers possible. And I think those are the ones that succeed, and those are all in this space at the intersection of technology, policy law. And of course being here in Washington politics. Yes, there’s always politics. So tell me a little bit about your members and what are some of their most pressing concerns?


Well, I think if you ask our members, what is at the top of their agenda, They’re very focused on making sure that we have federal budgets, which are adequate to allow both the government and industry to do what’s requested whether it be, uh, in national security space, uh, whether it be in, in defense, whether it be in making sure the, um, the skies above us are safe.


For increasing innovations and emerging technologies like drones, as well as traditional means of travel like airplanes and helicopters. One to ensuring we’ve got the right mix of proactive policies and regulatory frameworks that enable growth. But also, um, and also give people confidence that their security and their safety will be protected and they look to government for that.


And that growth I think is really critical, not only as a bottom line for industry, but growth to make sure that America stays on top. And then finally. Workforce workforce is something we hear consistently, which is how is the aerospace and defense industry ensuring that it continues to get the next rocket scientists and cutting edge computer scientists to ensure that America stays on top.


I am competitive against some of our global, uh, Competitors, you mentioned, uh, in the course of your answer there about building some of the capacities that were needed and having the budget so that people could do the job. It sounds like an awful lot of confidence building. Is that what they do? So my background is in arms control and confidence building measures.


Are an essential piece of having any type of negotiation where you want to ensure that both parties see a problem. See, uh, see the facts from the same perspective and know that they’re dealing with a rational partner on the other side of the table. So that’s a little bit of it, but I would just say that the key, the key thing that our members are interested in is making sure that the public is able to.


To understand what they do. Government knows where there is opportunity to invest so we can maintain our global lead. And that there’s a business case for all of this. So we’re not like some other countries. That we have to heavily subsidize our industry. You know, my boss, Eric fanning always says that us companies don’t compete against foreign companies.


They compete against foreign governments. And so government and industry have a really critical role to play in making sure we maintain our lead. Maintaining our lead is certainly about taking care of what’s going on right now, whether that be in the marketplace or security. But what about the future?


What’s a vision for the future in what are. Absolutely critical areas for economic and national security success. Well, you know, this is, uh, 19, uh, 19 is when AI was founded. And so now we’re in 2019, a hundred years later and we’re celebrating our Centennial. So it caused us to look backwards and say, what are some of the incredible innovations.


That our industry has produced from obviously, you know, the moon landing to the GPS constellation, which enables Uber and Tinder, to be honest, connecting people, not only in your own city, but all over the globe. And of course there’s the internet. Which was initially at DOD ARPA and DARPA net project, which has revolutionized how we communicate, how we engage, how we interact with each other.


And we’ve been telling that story over the course of the year, but as we’ve been messaging that and trying to raise an elevate. Public understanding and appreciation of everything our industry does. We thought, well, you can only be looking backwards. We’ve got to paint, uh, and develop a vision for the future.


So earlier this year, AIA worked with our knowledge partner, McKinsey. To develop something which we call vision 2050. And, uh, our goal with vision 2050 was to figure out what aerospace and defense is going to look like in the year 2050, not with a science fiction perspective, but what we actually think is possible and what we’re going to need to do today to make that a reality.


So when you think of what vision 2050, that is. 31 years from now, will we be having the flying cars? I mean, we’re already starting to see the, uh, the rise of autonomous vehicles. Is this a sort of blueprint to get everybody that George Jetson car, or is it bigger than that? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I think, uh, we’ve tried to do two things with vision 2050, and I’ll explain.


How we get to that vision of the future and a second, but first I wanted to just underscore that this is not a dream of what the future could be. Like. This was a rigorous study where we teed up a number of, Oh, actually over 75. Chief technology officers and chief strategy officers at our members. We engaged senior government officials involved in technology development.


And we also worked with people funding, uh, many of these startups and upstart companies, uh, to look at where the profit pools were and where. The money was going to create this market for the future. And what they came up with was what I’ll characterize as an optimistic but realistic, uh, vision of the future.


And we wanted to use that vision on the one hand to engage a broader audience outside of the beltway outside of Washington, DC, about what actually is possible and to say, well, this vision is possible, but it’s. Certainly not assured, and it’s not assured that the United States is the country. That’s going to be the country that realizes that vision first.


And so what we’ve got to do is not only use this vision to engage a broader audience, but then also use it to say to government, okay. What do we need to be doing within the next two to five years to make sure we’re on track to make this vision a reality? Where, what kind of investments do we need to make?


What kinds of proactive regulatory policy frameworks do we need to develop? How do we attract that workforce that we once had after the Apollo 11 mission? That, that, that changed how people saw themselves? And the universe and want it to play a role in their own destiny. How do we recapture that same spirit?


And that’s part of what we’re trying to do with vision 2015. What are the obstacles though that you and AIA see to enacting that vision? What can stop something like this from occurring? Is it just about money? It’s money. Of course is a, is a critical element. And it’s not only government money. It’s private sector, R and D it’s university basic research and applied research working with, uh, industry partners.


It’s this framework. I keep talking about the framework that enables companies to enter and profit from entering and use. And realize their R and D uh, investments, but also that allow us to ensure that we’re safe. So you mentioned the Jetsons and this vision of, uh, air taxis in the future will, the technology is going to be.


Widespread to enable air taxis, not in 31 years, but in the next handful of years, the real question is once the technology is there, how do we create a system that allows people to feel safe using it? How do we create a system that is widespread and, and people can feel confident using it, but also realize that it can get them where they need.


And the time they need and it’s reliable. So what vision 2050 says, and when I read it, and this was the most surprising thing is yeah, air taxis. And in the year 2050 will not be some niche thing that only the rich are able to use to jet off to their beach vacations from the cities. But it’ll be about as common as Uber’s are today.


And as someone who’s worked with an Uber and been a part of that, Uh, you certainly come to this with a whole lot more. I’ll say informed judgment and experienced on a lot of other people. And based on that experience, should people feel completely comfortable with what will be very dramatic changes, uh, particularly as it relates to, again, these are going to change jobs.


These are going to change jobs dramatically, whether you be a truck driver or driving a school bus, um, Aren’t you? Why aren’t you worried how much disruption this might cause? Well, I think the, while the change today looks pretty dramatic. I think changes often more incremental than dramatic. It wasn’t.


Much more than 12 years ago before the iPhone existed, which meant that Uber wouldn’t have even been possible. And so if you told me that I would be on my cell phone 15 years ago, getting a car, I couldn’t have conceived how that would happen, but it wasn’t that. That switch flipped on one day, it was that all of a sudden the GPS constellation became open for uses far beyond just the government.


And when that commercial sector started to be able to take advantage of this system, which was initially invested in an engineered for a government purpose, opened up to a commercial market, that’s where the real innovation occurred. So I think that this change. We’ll look dramatic when you’re looking out 31 years, but I think it’ll feel more incremental as it happens.


And as it goes, people will have confidence and people will say, Oh, my nephew did that. I guess that’s safe. And they’ll see photos of people engaging in this. Um, and in this environment that today looks. Futuristic, but it won’t look futuristic five years before it reaches full maturity and there will be news coverage and there will be attention and there will be accidents and, and there will be learnings from those accidents and, and we’ll get there to a place of full maturity in a way that it doesn’t feel so sudden that people say yesterday, I was.


You know, taking a taxi cab and today I’m, you know, being ferried from my house to my, in an, in a, in a ride hailing, uh, with using a ride hailing app. To, uh, to an airport, uh, where I get on a plane, which takes me to a Virta port, which takes me to a remote location waiting for me as another, uh, autonomous vehicle, which takes me to my ultimate destination.


It won’t happen overnight. I think each of those elements. Will appear over time incrementally. You’ve talked about a lot of players. You have government, you have industry, you have technology, inventors and developers. Who’s the stakeholder that you think really needs to step up their game. If the, if vision 2050 is to become reality.


So that’s an easy answer. Everybody needs. Do better. AIA is really focused on making sure that government understands where industry is coming from, what industry’s priorities are and helping government do, do better and enable more growth and more opportunity. But industry plays a really important part in that, that as well, they’ve got to.


They’ve got to make the right investments. They’ve got to take risks. They’ve got to look at where technology is going and making sure that we’re still. On the leading edge of this. And, uh, ultimately it all comes down to workforce. This industry is going to change and there’s going to be you were you bespoke, uh, unique platforms and a real emphasis on software going forward.


And as aerospace and defense becomes more software focused. We’re going to have to look towards different types of engineers and different types of talents. Not only to, uh, build these systems, but as autonomy advances powered by AI, we’re going to have to figure out how human machine teaming works because neither one of them will be sufficient to enable this future on their own.


You mentioned AI and artificial intelligence. Yeah. What role will artificial intelligence and machine learning play in this future world? Is it the foundational sort of central nervous system of all of it? I think, I, I don’t know if I would go that far, but it is a critical question. Your element, there is this huge amount of data that today we’re not able to fully even realize.


And you see little sparks of it when you’re online. And you’re, you know, you’re clicking out on Facebook and then it comes up on your desktop, but that’s all going to change, right? With more data and increased analytical power and computing power. That’s right. It’s necessary to enable not only flying taxis, but drones, performing everyday tasks, whether it be cleaning, cleaning windows of skyscrapers, or perhaps even building the skyscrapers themselves.


There is this entire network, this, this highway that needs to be powered by AI, which manifests itself and autonomy in order to, to build and envision this modern world. That’s really right around the corner. And I think those are some of the real critical aspects that we need to be investing in right now.


And focused on because if we don’t create a national framework for how to do this, that respects privacy, that has some type of ethics people, aren’t going to be, feel comfortable, engaging with it. And what our critical industry contribution to that is the security aspect, because you can have pure ethics and you can have, you know, locked down privacy.


But if, uh, But if a foreign power gets access to it, they can distort both of those. So is data the fuel for vision 2050 data leveraged with artificial intelligence manifest and autonomy? I’d say those are some of the most critical elements. Of this future. You talked about flying taxis and you talked about some of the other things there.


What is vision 2050 have to say about space and where we’re going to go with that. So space is a critical part, part of vision 2050. It’s not only enabling you global communication, right? And the internet of things, connectivity. And just to break that out for your listeners, you know, I was told recently, what does the internet of things mean?


What means that your TV is into TV, but it’s a computer that shows you things and your stove is no longer a stove, but it’s a computer that heats things it’s Oh, you have a connected home. How you have a connected, uh, ride to work, how you, um, How these everyday objects have really transformed into computers, which then do these things, these various mundane, everyday task.


It’s much more than a room book, but it’s all powered by space. In addition, there’s this, uh, this real time. View of earth, that space will engender a with advanced sensors and supported by this AI data analytics and these tools, vision 2050 also, you know, frankly charts, a path towards high speed air transportation, uh, such as supersonic flight, which we once had.


But it was very niche. I think the advances in technology that will come from reduced sound, the Sonic boom, increased speeds will create a real market for it. That won’t be as widespread as coach air travel is today, but it’ll certainly be used. If, if, if people can figure out the right route, will it be more comfortable than today’s travel?


Well, I think. By 2050, the tube and wing, uh, regional travel, um, and transcontinental travel probably won’t change that much, but supersonic travel will be much more comfortable than the images of supersonic travel that I saw previously with the Concord, when people were jammed in those tiny seats, sweat and bullets, you know, thinking Oh three hours.


New York to London. Sounds great, but Oh my God, do I really have to sit in this hot plane for three hours? Right? It seems like a long trip that way, but she’s but you get there and, um, and w with obviously a very, very expensive ticket, but as you mentioned, we used to have it, but now we don’t. How will we be able to keep something like a subsonic aircraft and those types of things going forward?


Have we learned those lessons so that we don’t lose it? So I think as far as subsonic aircraft go there’s, the market just makes sense. You know, airlines today are pretty profitable. They’ve managed to turn things around. As far as supersonic goes, what will be new is. Traveling over land reduced technology advances that would result in reduced emissions and, uh, significantly lower Sonic booms will enable those things to fly over where people live and not disrupt them.


And, you know, I saw a study that when they were. Trialing some of the first supersonic flights over the United States, they used Oklahoma City as a test case. And several times they blew out literally every single window and downtown Oklahoma City in the sixties when they were, uh, trying to see if supersonic travel Overland was possible.


How will the commercial space market shape this vision? So beyond earth. You know, vision 2050 incorporates all of these new nascent in space activities, such as in space, manufacturing, resources, extraction that take advantage of the unique conditions of space. Yes. Whether it be heat, whether it be cold, whether it be zero gravity, but just like I mentioned earlier, where one day the government occupied the field, the opportunities.


As a launch costs go down for space in genders, this commercial market, which allows new players to see and seed value. So reduced launch costs means more activities in space, more opportunities. And I think creative entrepreneurs will see value. In accessing space and trying and testing and failing and testing again because the costs are not so prohibitive.


What advice? I, I’ve got to ask the question in two different ways. What advice would you give a student today about creating the environment that you’ve talked about here today? About with vision 2050. There’s the student piece. And the second part of that is what advice do you have for an investor in this space today?


What would you tell those two people? So I’ll start with the investor because I, I don’t have as, as strong an answer, but I, I say that we are. We are really on the cusp of the unknown. And there’s so much opportunity that mitigating and managing risk in space, I think is, is a bet today. But I think it’s a bet that has a real ability to pay off.


Down the road. If, if you do it smartly, you, you stick to your business business plan and you make sure that you’re not following, uh, someone’s dream alone, but it’s a dream backed by, uh, analytics backed by, uh, the right amount of funding backed by a broad buy-in of people, all who, who know this, who know the space space.


Better than anybody with respect to students, we are on the cusp of a new space age, and then, uh, an opportunity that hasn’t really been seen since the height of the Apollo program. And that’s enabled by autonomy. Where things can be done in space in the future that we wouldn’t have been able to do before.


So that will create new markets. That’ll create new opportunities and you know, what will, will, what students will be able to see that I wasn’t able to see as a student was. This nascent, uh, ability for people to see earth from space, not if you’re a Navy test pilot, not if you’re a rigorously trained astronaut, but the advent of space tourism will enable people to see themselves.


Among the stars and then inspire them to go hopefully even farther. And I think that to me is the most exciting thing that this is the new Silicon spaces, the new Silicon Valley. And I think if, if you want unlimited opportunity, if you want to find a way. To test and fail and try again and succeed beyond your wildest dreams spaces, the place to go.


And, you know, AIA runs, uh, the world’s largest student rocketry challenge, the American rocketry challenge. And that is we’ve found just such an exciting way to get people interested in, in the field in general. And we’ve seen them go on to do great things, both in government and with our members.


Technology companies as well. Last question. When you think about this future, what’s the one technology that Alex Wagner wants to say. It is self evolving, proactive, cybersecurity. Now you’re going to have to go, uh, check out the report. It’s a 20, 50 You can see it online to understand what that really means, but in the most tangible way, it’s a release of passwords.


I hate passwords. Passwords are America’s and the world’s biggest cyber vulnerability. One of our biggest national security risks. And it’s because of the people. People can not remember passwords. And if cyber becomes self evolving and protecting, we can engage online. We can gauge, uh, with advanced computing, we can, we can shop more.


We don’t have to create unique logins for everything, which will save me time, which will. Uh, not make me worried that my email’s going to be hacked by the Russians. And, uh, and I think it’ll ensure that the entire system is more efficient. Makes more business sense will allow people, uh, to spend less money on protection and more money on, uh, On visionary engagements and business opportunities in the future.


So, so cyber, that sounds more practical than a flying. Yeah. I’ll, I’ll take one of those too, but, uh, we talked enough about those initially, so, okay. Alex Wagner, thank you very much for your time. This is Rich Cooper with the Space4U podcast. Please stay tuned for more upcoming episodes of Space4U.


As we continue to share the stories of the men and women that are making today’s space and technology environment possible, because remember at the Space Foundation, we always have space for you. Thank you.

Listen to the Podcast

Space4U Podcast: Alex Wagner, AIA Vice President – Strategic Initiatives