On the ninth fairway at the Pakachoag Golf Course in Auburn, Massachusetts, lies a small granite obelisk commemorating the dawn of the space age. 

It was there, on March 16, 1926, that Robert Goddard carried out the first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket: a 10 foot cylinder that flew for just two and half seconds to an altitude of 41 feet before plummeting to the surrounding farmland.

But the pioneering achievement was the culmination of decades of experimentation that began when Goddard started tinkering with kites, balloons, and eventually chemical compounds. His early fascination was further fueled by a telescope and subscription to Scientific American, thanks to his father.

As the centennial of the launch approaches, that childhood exposure to the wonders of science and discovery crystalizes the acute challenge we now face in captivating and nurturing a new generation of pioneers who can outpace other spacefaring nations, some of them our adversaries. 

Yet it also offers a unique opportunity to marshal, from across the nation and from all backgrounds, more of the young people we will need to realize the promise of a cislunar economy and humanity’s off-world future. We can ignite that new generation of tinkerers on a grander scale, with a nationwide contest involving students in all 50 states to design and build small satellite prototypes to commemorate Goddard’s achievement. The approaching centennial is just what we need to fuel a new generation of space pioneers.

“The space industry is at a pivotal moment,” states Space Workforce 2030, a consortium of space companies organized by the government-funded Aerospace Corporation. “With rapid growth across all sectors, we need a strong, vibrant, and inclusive workforce to stay at the cutting edge of innovation.”

The good news is that private space employment is on the rise. The nonprofit Space Foundation reported a 3.4% rate of growth in the first half of 2023. But the number of aerospace engineers needed is expected to grow 6% between 2022 and 2032, or double the rate of all occupations. And we simply aren’t producing enough of them. 

A newly announced public-private partnership, Space4All, is dedicated to helping build “a diverse, inclusive Space STEM workforce by sharing the excitement of space on a national scale, igniting interest in future careers in STEM and space, and revealing the many ways that space enhances our lives on Earth.”

The five-year public awareness campaign is a partnership between the Department of Education, Women in Aerospace, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Club for the Future and Space Foundation. “There will be a specific focus on reaching underrepresented communities to ensure equitable, diverse, and inclusive growth within the space industry,” they announced. 

At the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology, an interdisciplinary research center at University of Massachusetts Lowell, a Minority Serving Institution, we are also doing our part to prepare the next generation of space pioneers. We offer a diverse range of research projects, from developing new tools to identify black holes and stars to creating computer models describing space weather effects and maturing technologies to image planets around nearby stars.

We are grateful for the support of the National Science Foundation, which is helping us create tenure-track faculty positions through the Faculty Development in geoSpace Science program. Its goal is to introduce space physics and space weather education and research programs in colleges of sciences or engineering in universities across the country.

The space technology portfolio at UMass Lowell is about to expand as part of the recently announced Lowell Innovation Network Corridor. The nearly $800 million development project, set to take place over the next decade, boasts major space industry players such as Raytheon Technologies, BAE Systems, and Draper among its private sector partners. 

Our experience gives us a deep appreciation of the motivating power of learning by doing — by tinkering as Goddard did. I teach a project-based class on CubeSat mission design. The students develop space missions in the areas of ecology, environment and awe-inspiring natural phenomena such as eclipses and aurora. Through their activities, they quickly see the benefits that space technologies offer to everyday life. 

High school and college students are finding support elsewhere, too. In 2021, the Department of Education selected five student teams that developed systems to measure the thermosphere and to study the lunar surface, among other things. NASA is also doing more to support fundamental research with its offerings of high school programs.

The upcoming centennial of Goddard’s achievement, which also coincides with NASA’s plans to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a national initiative that could help invigorate the STEM curriculum like the Apollo moon program first did in the 1960s.

We urge government agencies — NASA, the U.S. Space Force, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Communications Commission — and leaders in the space industry to come together to seize this opportunity by mentoring students and providing launch operations and mission control for a nationwide commemoration. 

As the Space Workforce 2030 report attests, “The next generation must be even more educated, innovative, and resilient to stay competitive. Savvy industry leaders know we can’t afford to leave any talented individuals behind.”

Such an effort would meet key objectives of the White House’s Interagency Roadmap to Support Space-Related STEM Education and Workforce, the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as those outlined in the recently released State of the Space Industrial Base report. 

At UMass Lowell, we stand ready to contribute to the celebration of a historic endeavor. Along with three other Minority Serving Institutions, we recently responded to a NASA call for proposals in the hopes of strengthening and expanding our research capacities. A key component of our plan is to create the infrastructure required to conduct science experiments in near space. 

Goddard’s own words should propel us to heed the lessons of his example: “I still seem to be alone in my enthusiasm for liquid-fueled rockets,” he wrote some years after his milestone experiment, “but have a hunch that the time is coming when a good many will want to get aboard the bandwagon.”

For our future in space, that time is now. 

Supriya Chakrabarti, a professor of physics, is director of the Lowell Center for Space and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Supriya Chakrabarti, a professor of physics, is director of the Lowell Center for Space and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.