Lyn D. Wigbels Credit: Lance H. Marburger

The American Astronautical Society (AAS), the networking organization for space professionals that predates the dawn of the Space Age, is in the midst of a youth movement.

As it celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, the AAS is pushing hard to attract the 35-and-under crowd, on behalf of both itself and the space industry at large.

“These young people have other compelling career choices,” says Lyn Wigbels, who is running unopposed for a second two-year term as AAS president. “They don’t have to choose space as their field and so we want to bring them in and let them understand what this community is about.”

That means finding ways to get them involved in a meaningful way, she says: “From my experience, young people don’t want to just come in and sit and listen.”

Providing networking and professional development opportunities for budding space careerists fits well within the broader mission of the AAS, whose members include scientists, engineers, lawyers and policy wonks. Conferences such as the long-running Goddard Memorial Symposium near Washington, the relatively new Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, and the annual International Space Station Research and Development conferences are key to carrying out this mission.

The AAS also seeks to influence space policy, primarily by educating decision makers on the importance and benefits of space exploration.

Wigbels, who runs a consultancy in addition to her duties with AAS, is a former senior NASA executive specializing in policy and international affairs. In that capacity she played a key role in developing and negotiating the partnership agreements with Europe, Canada and Japan on the international space station.

Wigbels spoke recently with SpaceNews Editor Warren Ferster.

What are you doing to engage and attract young people to careers in the space industry?

Let me run through some of the things that we do. We’ve been organizing an annual CanSat competition in Texas, where you build a payload with an egg for launch on a rocket and the goal is to make sure you get it back unbroken. It’s evolved as our premier STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] educational event, attracting college and university students from around the world. We’re partnering with the Future Space Leaders foundation, which supports providing professional development experiences to students and young professionals, providing grants for them to attend conferences. We’re responsible for evaluating the applications and ranking them and providing recommendations to the foundation. We also support the young professional program activities at the International Astronautical Congress, which is a series of events where they have an opportunity to meet with senior leaders from space agencies or industry. We’ve also been providing scholarships for students to attend the International Space University. And this year, we’ve added a new award to recognize outstanding educators who deliver space education or use space in STEM education.

What about involvement within your organization?

We’re emphasizing increasing the involvement of young professionals. We have a couple of young professionals on the board, and I hope we’ll have more, and are putting them in leadership positions. We are making them part of the planning committees for our events. They have a lot of good input to provide. And we’re also providing opportunities to them to be on panels. In fact at the von Braun symposium we had the millennial panel, which kicked off the conference. We’re also introducing more webcasting for our conferences and we’re increasing our social media presence, because this is a way that we can better reach out to the next generation.

Do you think the space industry is having trouble attracting young talent?

I think it’s a top priority of the industry to attract them. I think companies understand that they need to do more. You’ve got Silicon Valley and other areas where these young people can go. You’ve got the “new space” companies, they offer a lot of opportunities where young people can get very quickly engaged, so we need to make sure that we provide those opportunities in our industry so they are doing something and not just sitting back and waiting 15 years before they can take on any responsibility.

Has the emergence and growth of new space filled a void of sorts in attracting young people to space careers? 

I think a little bit. But what would really fill the void is if we had a very robust human space exploration program that young people could see is happening soon and not over a period of decades.

Your organization currently has 1,300-1,400 individual and 48 corporate members. Has that been fairly steady?

It has been really steady over the years. Certainly we would love to see it grow some but we don’t have aspirations to become a super mega organization. A few years ago when budgets were being reduced there were a couple of corporate members that had to drop their membership and so we’re hoping they will come back. But the future we see is bringing in the young professionals and students, and that’s where we’re putting our efforts.

What does the AAS do to influence space policy?

We try to educate and provide information on why it’s important to support space activities. We work with other organizations as letters are pulled together to Capitol Hill and to the White House Office of Management and Budget to provide reasons why funding for space activities should be increased or continued.

Has the emergence of so many other space networking and advocacy organizations forced any changes at the AAS?

We look at it as an advantage to have more organizations that can speak on behalf of the importance of space, and we look for ways to collaborate. The bigger threat to us for the past few years has been sequestration and the reductions of people attending conferences. So one of the ways we’ve banded together again with other organizations is to try to make the government understand the importance of conferences to the profession.

How would you characterize the state of NASA’s human spaceflight program?

The biggest issue is not having enough funding to do everything NASA’s been asked to do. And that’s everything, not just human spaceflight. We don’t have the funding to really pursue a very vigorous program and so, as people have said, it’s always 30 years away before we go to Mars, and it just keeps being 30 years away. I think it’s widely recognized that NASA’s core mission is very important and the real question is how, as a society, are we going to fund it.

NASA has been tasked to concurrently pursue commercial crew and cargo vehicles for the space station and a heavy-lift rocket and capsule for deep-space exploration. Is this sustainable? 

I don’t know what the alternative is, if we’re ever going to have a future in space.

Do we have the proper balance between human spaceflight and robotic missions? 

The science budget has been doing relatively well but it’s bumping up against missions like Cassini and others that keep operating and so we have to make these choices. Can we keep funding them while we want to move on missions to Europa and elsewhere? Again, the critical issue is making the case that we need to increase the overall budget so we can support these core missions.

Can robotic missions like the European Space Agency’s recent comet landing capture the public’s imagination the way Apollo did?

It’s very true that they have excited a lot of people and I think it’s also the efforts that NASA and ESA have done to engage people in those missions by providing real-time access. But the robotic missions can only do so much. If you have humans there you are going to be able to accomplish a lot more. We need both.

Many argue that any future large-scale human spaceflight mission will have to be an international cooperative effort from the beginning. Do you agree?

Absolutely. I think the ISS has been an amazing collaboration and what we’ve seen are the partners working through so many programmatic and technical and political events over the years and they’ve remained a strong partnership. I think that’s an anchor, a very good foundation for moving beyond that. When you’re talking about endeavors like putting a base on the Moon or going to Mars, it absolutely needs the talent and the resources from around the world.

Are there elements of the space station partnership agreements that in retrospect made things more difficult?

I’m going to turn it around a bit and say there were a lot of things that were done right because those negotiations were done while the agencies were involved in the Phase B studies. You had to come up with management mechanisms for the partners to make decisions along the way. The mechanisms provided enough flexibility for partners to deal with all of the development and operational issues. I haven’t done the kind of analysis that you’re asking. But what you hear from many of the partners involved is they would love to be able to base future cooperation on what exists today. Now, how that’s done legally is a different question.

NASA was able to cooperate with the Soviet Union, its adversary during the Cold War, yet cooperation with the Chinese is strictly off limits. Is this a missed opportunity?

I think from a technical perspective it’s good to try to figure out how there may be collaboration but we recognize that there are overriding political issues and hopefully they can get resolved at some point in the future. Those on Capitol Hill who have concerns have expressed them quite strongly. China is at least saying they’re going to move out and one would hope that in a future endeavor we might all be engaged. But we have to be realistic about what we’re dealing with.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...