Students carry a rocket on their shoulders in this still from a promotional video for the $1 million Base 11 Space Challenge.

Earlier this summer, a consortium of innovators launched the largest student incentive prize in history, a $1 million challenge to university teams to design, build and launch a liquid-fuel rocket to the edge of space (100 kilometers). The goal is vitally important: Engage a new generation in pushing the frontiers of spaceflight and in doing so, increase minority involvement in aerospace and related industries.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecasts that the commercial space industry will reach a total market size of $2.7 trillion by 2035. While women and minorities were left behind in the technology boom in Silicon Valley, we can’t let the same thing happen with space.

According to the National Science Foundation, African-American and Hispanics currently make up just 5 percent each of the science and engineering workforce, while Native Americans are only 0.1 percent. White women hold only 18 percent of the S&E job market.

Yet diversity spurs innovation and success. “Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 30 percent more likely to perform above the mean in their industry,” reports Jenny Abramson, founder and Managing Director of Rethink Impact.

There is a silver lining for the aerospace industry. By 2020, the majority of baby boomer aerospace engineers, the youngest of whom were only age 5 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, will have retired. This opens the door for young new talent, but we have to attract and train that talent and offer them not only education, but hands-on experience.

Thus the prize concept, dreamed up by my friend Landon Taylor, who is the CEO of the nonprofit Base 11, and funded by a philanthropist, will provide the opportunity to not only join a school rocket team and be mentored by some of the best aerospace engineers in the world, but also to get on a direct path to jobs at exciting companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and startups like Firefly Aerospace and SpinLaunch.

The $1 million Base 11 Space Challenge (, with other similar incentive prizes, gives universities and colleges a driver to bolster their rocketry programs and empower students to learn far more than the theory of rocket science, by developing expertise in rocket safety, navigating federal flight regulations, and demonstrating the essential skills of teamwork and innovation.

And, in the last months, Landon upped the ante by announcing an additional $1.5 million grant to one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities to launch its own liquid-fuel rocketry program, so this generation of African-American students will get hands-on experience in the rocket technology.

We all have our stories of how we got to where we are, who or what inspired us, the challenges and barriers we had to overcome, and the passions that drove us to success. While each personal narrative is different, they all share three basic drivers: education, mentorship and access to opportunity. If you have these three, the rest falls into place – or in this case, into space.

Landon and I are cases in point. Two African-American boys growing up on opposite coasts, our stories are both different, yet we beat the odds, in our own way. He was born to teenage parents and lost his mom to suicide when he was just 7. Many of his peers in the San Francisco neighborhood where he grew up in ended up dead or in jail during the crack cocaine crisis of the 80s. Yet Landon became a successful entrepreneur and business executive. The key to his success he says, were his dad who taught him to never quit, no matter what, and his grandparents who introduced him to science at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and art at the San Francisco Opera, leading him into a whole new world of opportunities beyond his neighborhood.

I was born into a family of educators who always provided the tools I needed to be successful. But, my journey was not always idyllic. At age 5, I was abused by a neighbor. I knew that I could not tell anyone because I knew my father would probably have killed the person, effectively leaving me without a dad, like so many of my friends with an incarcerated parent. So I channeled my energy into sports and, later, into chemistry.

As a sixth grader, I created an explosion in my mother’s living room with a non-certified chemistry set that burned a hole in her carpet but fueled my curiosity to become a chemist. All I needed was a lab coat and safety glasses to be legit! Those kinds of hands-on learning experiences are critical to exceling in the 21stcentury workforce, and we need to exponentially increase those experiences at universities across the country (minus the rug burn).

Some people say it cannot be done; that rocketry is too hard or too dangerous for young people. But we need a real moonshot to excite a diverse group of students to pursue aerospace and other STEM-related fields.

 By 2021, we want a well-trained, fully vetted and diverse talent pipeline that is ready to enter the aerospace and tech markets — students with documented skills in engineering design, 3D imaging, project management and systems integration. We want to tear down the silos between industry, academia, philanthropy and nonprofits and replace them with an integrated scalable STEM talent development model on a national scale.

We can help make the next generation of space innovators as diverse as America is — all with the excitement of teams flying to the edge of space! They are the next generation of explorers!  And, that’s just plain cool.

Leland Melvin, drafted as a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, is an engineer, former NASA astronaut and former NASA Associate Administrator for Education. He was the 12th black man to fly to space and the only person to catch a pass in the NFL and in space. He served on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis twice.

Leland Melvin, drafted as a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, is an engineer, former NASA astronaut and former NASA Associate Administrator for Education. He was the 12th black man to fly to space and the only person to catch a pass in the NFL and...