As a student intern at the Baker Institute International Space Medicine Summit, I sat in the back corner of an auditorium filled with the most accomplished astronauts, cosmonauts, doctors, scientists and engineers from around the world. It was a bit intimidating, especially because taking notes on the lengthy introductions gave me the sense I might have been the only person in the room who hadn’t either gone to space or won a Nobel Prize. Interestingly, as time crept on and the discussion moved from radiation to reduced bone density to long-duration space flight to space education, I realized I had something that everyone else in the room was missing: youth. I looked around thinking I might be the only person in the auditorium under 40 — and in an instant got the feeling I was part of a giant metaphor for the main problem with the space industry today.
As I learned at the summit, much has changed in the near half-century since Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon. At the time, space was at the forefront of the world’s attention, attracting the most intelligent and creative minds of a generation and inspiring an ingenuity that advanced technology in leaps and bounds. If you happen to be unaware of NASA’s many groundbreaking advances don’t feel too bad; it’s not entirely your fault, but note: NASA’s contributions to everyday society range from GPS to breast cancer screening to improved tire and road safety to revolutionized general aviation and much, much more.
It’s also vital to understand that with the passage of time, technology advances more quickly and space grows exponentially more important, presenting a new avenue for a whole range of threats to national security. To be clear, I’m not talking about alien invasions but the challenges associated with dependence on satellites and the scary potential for space to evolve into a new international war zone. Luckily it’s not all danger; the future of space also brings opportunity — the chance for increased technological advancement both in the short and long term, the chance for international peace-building cooperation, and for exploration endlessly capable of satisfying our curiosity.
This new set of challenges and opportunities means a new range of problems that needs solving. How can we make space the next territory for international cooperation and technological advancement? How do we prevent it from becoming one country’s strategic military asset, and how do we prevent the new frontier from breeding new rivalry and conflict? The future is fast approaching, and we need to find the best answers to these questions quickly. Unfortunately, as the need for investment in the space industry becomes more urgent, public attention has waned.
NASA and the space industry need a new generation of problem solvers to answer the questions that will shape our future, but right now, they don’t have it.
When the U.S. was trying to get people to the moon, space was inherently glamorous and easily won the attention of the media and the world. Now, however, with no highly publicized grand goal, things have changed, and an effort needs to be made to garner public attention. Key changes should be made on three fronts. First, and perhaps most important, the public must be made more aware of both the dangers and opportunities that lie ahead. Informed individuals need to reach out to the public, to the media, and to public officials to raise awareness. If the media and teachers and professors can get the message out that pressing issues in space are on the horizon, it will attract the attention of highly motivated, intelligent young people who want to solve the world’s problems.
Second, Congress should give some level of priority to the space industry. This is not a problem that can be solved all of a sudden — we will need foresight to capitalize on opportunities and solve challenging problems. We need to start now. Unfortunately, in terms of percentage of the total budget, NASA’s funding is around 1/8 of what it was in the mid-1960s. That has to change.
Lastly, the space industry must consider a strategic reorganization of its public relations campaign. NASA must not go forward with planned cuts to its education budget. NASA needs to hire student interns, who are both cheap and in touch with the youth population, to help direct social media campaigns, improve its connections to schools and universities across the country, and reach out to the general media to explain why the space industry is so vital.
We don’t want to wander aimlessly into the future and hope it turns out all right. We need start thinking now about our future in space. We need a new generation of problem solvers in the space industry.
Alejandro Botas is a Rice University rising sophomore working as a student research assistant with the Transnational China Project at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. He is majoring in policy studies and political science.