Commentary | Make Way for a New Generation in Space

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Space is an aging industry that benefits from the wealth of information brought about by the decades of experience of its current leaders. It is also an industry that generally relies on verified “space proven” methods over newer untested technologies that harbor unknown risks. While the already proven methods and technologies are crucial in bringing reliability to an inherently risky industry, it is also important not to ignore new and emerging ideas and approaches.

In 1957, the successful launch of Sputnik started the “space generation.” Those of us born after that time have grown up surrounded by space technology, and this has become an ingrained part in our daily lives. The Apollo program arrived in the 1960s, bringing the passion for space a step further. Space became a “cooler” thing; it was a way to measure the power, the determination and the progress of a nation. There is indeed an “Apollo generation” inspired by this.

After the Apollo program, the Space Race brought us to Mir and the international space station (ISS), and it got stuck there. Soyuz and the space shuttle were the immediate results of this. The shuttle inspired yet another generation —bringing people’s dreams to outer space, to ISS. And then the shuttle was retired, with no replacement.

And here we are, a remaining generation inspired by Sputnik, Apollo, the shuttle and ISS.

However, we should take care of the newcomers, those who live in the “space generation” but are losing track of it. National space programs tried hard to push for exploration beyond low Earth orbit; we landed on Mars and even went to the edge of our solar system.

But it is not enough. There is a lack of attraction among the general public; the “wow effect” that inspired the first generation is gone, replaced by many other things.

This “new generation” (we have not found our name yet) has the knowledge and the technology. So then what happens? The world has evolved very fast, faster than politics, law and sometimes society itself. Space, as I mentioned, still relies on the “space proven” methods, but the world is moving faster, and if we do not get into the rhythm, it will pass. The space program will remain as a dream lost in the past generations; the new ones will settle into what we inherited and we will live happily ever after, just orbiting in a collapsed low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit.

The lack of harmony between the space programs and the evolving world is a fact.

But there is another fact: the existence of a very well prepared young generation ready to take the lead. This new generation is already used to dancing at the velocity of this evolving world, and has adapted to it several times. “Adapt or die,” we say.

This new generation will need to deal with two types of new challenges: adapting the space program to this fast-changing world by bringing exciting new ideas and developing revolutionary technologies, while keeping it safe to avoid losing its reliability; and solving the new problems that will remain including space debris, spectrum allocation, space sustainability, and planetary protection.

This new generation (let me define it as those between 18 and 35 years old) is ready to take over and move forward.

In the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), we are aware of these challenges; we know we are that generation that needs to work on solving the gap; and we are developing our strategy for it:

  • Strengthening international relations. The beauty of space is that it is the only common place for humans; it belongs to nobody and to all of us at the same time. Space programs started as a national pride endeavor, but there is a new path. This roadmap is foreseen only with the input of all nations, global agreements, global understanding and pure cooperation. However, given that humans tend to work better under stress, a little bit of competition is welcomed. But all in all, knowing your peers is the only way to win. SGAC comprises people from more than 100 countries around the world; the new generation learns from others, respects other ways of work and is able to soak up the best of each one.
  • Developing policy and legal frameworks. It is important to know the context. There is an immense gap between engineers and scientists, and media and policymakers. The young generation knows that technology is advancing so fast that the legal and political frameworks are becoming obsolete even faster. This is partially because the vast majority of policymakers are coming from the previous generations. SGAC works constantly to accomplish a key component of its mission: to be the dialogue agent between United Nations member states present at the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the next generation of international space sector leaders.
  • Studying the key space topics from an international point of view and providing solutions. This new generation is thirsty for knowledge. Nowadays, it is a matter of a click on our smartphones to get the immediate answer to a question. We are no longer a generation that answers questions, but a generation that asks them (and eventually will find the solutions). We learned what has been done in the past from the previous generations, but now we want to go further. Sometimes we are not allowed to debate or discuss certain things because we are criticized for a “lack of experience,” but the truth is that this lack of experience makes us the perfect outsiders to bring in new ideas and perspectives.
  • Bridging the gap between proven and emerging ideas and people in the space community. There is a gap between those Sputnik and Apollo generations and this new generation. Some of us have the privilege to attend unique meetings and events with decision-makers, and very often we are the only person under 50 years old in the room. Attendance to conferences and business trips is often reserved for those higher up in a company (especially under budget constrains). This is not the way to merge the generations. The philosopher Confucius highlighted this centuries ago: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” SGAC is giving scholarships to young professionals and students to attend such events and meetings, and we even organize our own, like the Space Generation Fusion Forum with the National Space Symposium and the Space Generation Congress with the International Astronautical Congress. By exposing our members to established professionals and organizations in the space community, we aim to assist in getting students and young professionals “space proven.” Simultaneously, we strive to ensure that the established space community is exposed to the opinions of our members on space issues, in order to make sure that newer ideas and approaches are considered as well as traditional ones.
  • Promoting education and outreach. Finally, this generation is used to new ways of communication that were invented less than 20 years ago and have become a great part of our daily lives. Social media, for example, are stronger than we ever thought, showing the power of rapid communication. We live in a society that will not stop to read a long article. People have so much information passing through their eyes that only those with an immediate “wow effect” will remain in the brain of the reader. Visual media are stronger than ever, and space has a winning ticket in its hand. Can you think of anything with more beauty than a picture of outer space? This new generation knows how to communicate and what the society wants to be communicated.

Let’s face it, the “new generation” is looking for a name, and it is a task for all of us to find it — and rather soon, if we do not want to miss the rhythm of our rapidly evolving world.

Andrea Jaime is executive director of the Space Generation Advisory Council, a global, nongovernmental organization and network that aims to represent university students and young space professionals to the United Nations, space agencies, industry and academia. If you are interested in collaborating or contributing to our mission of assisting and representing the next generation of space leaders, please visit our website at www.spacegeneration.org.