Federal shutdown vs. space summit: Summit wins!
A NASA space suit made its way into the state Capitol complex Thursday morning, a nice visual prop for a notable but seemingly routine press conference hailing an international space trade summit in Connecticut this spring.
Seemingly routine except for two remarkable facts: The supply chain summit, set for May 17-19, is the first of its kind in the United States. And it’s organized and co-sponsored by the U.S. Commerce Department.
That agency, we all know, is shut down.
And that made Thursday’s event, as well as many details of the summit itself, a feat to pull off without the work over the last five weeks of the department’s export assistance center in Middletown — and its indefatigable director, Anne S. Evans.
Making it happen was a triumph of teamwork by state and non-idled federal officials picking up the pieces; a public-private partnership put to the test; and tense negotiations for a temporary reprieve — allowing Evans to return to work for two crucial days.
“Everybody will tell you the people in Connecticut won’t get together and pitch in in a crisis. It ain’t true,” said John Schuyler, as he introduced speakers at the press conference.
Schuyler is chairman of the Connecticut District Export Council, a volunteer group appointed by the U.S. Commerce Secretary with the aim of working with the agency on events, education and outreach. Rarely does that mean stepping into the role of lead organizer, but temporarily at least, Schuyler — a retired certified public accountant from Marcum LP and longtime supporter of exporting firms — did pretty much that.
Just bringing people together for Thursday’s announcement, from the Australian embassy, from co-sponsor United Technologies Corp. and other companies and public officials, required a volley of phone calls, texts and emails that Evans and her tiny staff couldn’t do.
“I was a conduit. I was a fraction,” Schuyler said, downplaying his role.
People in the office of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, U.S, Rep John Larson, D-1st District, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, among others, all pitched in. The result: The shutdown turned from a blockade to an inconvenience.
How much of a hassle was the workaround? “I don’t want to comment on U.S. policy,” said Roger Grose, counsellor for defence materiel in the Australian embassy, “But obviously it had an impact.”
A lot was at stake. For Connecticut aerospace manufacturers, led by UTC, the summit represents a chance to show off a statewide industry cluster with thousands of skilled workers to space exploration players from NASA, other U.S. agencies and companies, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Aside from the trade in machined equipment, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said, “This is also about Connecticut being involved in the international marketplace.”
The star of Thursday’s show, retired astronaut Daniel Burbank, of Tolland, now works as a senior engineering fellow for UTC and its sprawling Collins Aerospace unit, at the old Hamilton Sundstrand plant in Windsor Locks. Standing next to the space suit, made in that plant,. he talked about space systems the way few can.
A 7-hour space walk on the International Space Station gave him the opportunity to, literally, push the million-pound orbiting unit, the size of a football field, out of the way and gaze down at Earth with nothing blocking the view.
“The sun is about ready to rise and you see a thin layer of blue,” Burbank said. “You look down between your feet and you see the Himalayas, sliding by you at 17,500 miles per hour.”
And you trust in the systems that brought you there — including more than 1,000 people at Collins Aerospace in Connecticut, “working on the most difficult challenges…of keeping people alive in space.”
Trust in the government comes undone in an extended shutdown. For these events, in this state, the glue at the core is, or should be, Anne Evans. Was she there on Thursday? Not officially. And yet, several speakers couldn’t help but give a shout-out to a private citizen in a black-and-white suit in the back of the room, who’s not being paid these days.
Evans couldn’t comment because she’s not representing the government because there is no government in full operation.
She was, however, able to pull off a two-day exemption from the furlough, Jan. 14 and 15 after much wrangling. The appeal went all the way to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who sent an approval on Sunday night, Jan. 13 for the two days of work for Evans.
She was cleared to work Monday and Tuesday and lo and behold, it was Monday in Australia when she got word; that started a flurry of handing-off of tasks and reaching out to foreign partners for the summit, which will happen in Hartford.
“Everybody had a little piece but it would have crashed and burned without the two days,” Schuyler said.
And that would have marked a lost opportunity for the state, courtesy of a president elected under the guise of a dealmaker who’s no more than a petulent child.
For Evans, a former international broker of used tires from Hebron, any work stoppage is trauma. She’s been known to pay her own way to trade meetings in Asia rather than put up with the same government red tape she helps Connecticut exporters cut through. Now is especially bad timing, with not only the space summit but also a trade mission to the Avalon Air Show in Melbourne, Australia next month — where Connecticut aerospace machining companies will have a presence.
She and the council have organized several previous trade summits, most recently last summer in Mystic, for Australian defense. They had laid plans for both the Australia trip and the space summit before the shutdown started on Dec. 22. They worked furiously in the days leading up to it, but there was no way to nail down both events completely.
“We understand the difficulties and we’re working with it,” said Mike Scotto, vice president for business development at ACMT Inc. Advanced Composites Metalforming Technologies, in Manchester. “We can’t let it slow us down.”
And so the summit’s announcement, even as the shutdown drags on, marks a moment of government triumph in a grim chapter of American politics. It’s a lesson that business can work around crises in the parts of government that affect it. That’s what a lot of smart people are able to do for other parts of government. Meanwhile, the people at the core aren’t receiving paychecks.
“The whole thing is pathetic,” said Schuyler, the export council chairman. “The one really good thing about this is, I got to see that people in the state can work together for a common goal.”