Op-Ed | The Greatest Challenge for the Space Community – Talent

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Today, every government, industry, infrastructure, military and community is connected to and relies on space. From high-speed data transfer via satellites, to the innovative technologies and scientific discoveries delivering real benefits on Earth, space is increasingly a crosscutting component in 21st century society. But do we have what we need to access the full potential of space? Not yet.

This is at the heart of my discussion with government and industry members of the space community during the “State of Space 2020” address at the National Press Club on Feb. 11.

A ground truth is that the future of space is not just about the thrill of exploration, it is also the realization that space is a powerful economic force. The global space economy reached $414.75 billion in 2018, according to The Space Report. Its potential is much greater. Economic analysts from a variety of organizations forecast that the space economy will be worth $1 trillion within the next two decades. With more than 80 nations operating in space and 40 spaceports across five continents (and a dozen more spaceports in development), the future of space is even brighter than our current successes and breakthroughs.

Seizing this great potential, however, is not just about launching rockets, placing satellites in orbit, and aspiring to return to the Moon and to explore Mars. Realizing the trillion-dollar space economy hinges on something here on Earth: talent. To be blunt, there is not enough of it. The world needs a skilled, qualified, educated workforce that can lead the space community into the future and beyond our atmosphere. Without capable talent with critical knowledge bases, none of us, or the booming space economy are going anywhere.

For years, there has been a focus on the STEM crisis in America, but STEM is only part of a much larger workforceshortage, skill deficit and innovation gap. There is an opportunity for everyone to be a part of the space economy – technical and non-technical – so we need to seek out untapped demographics and adopt a culture of lifelong learning – a continuum of training, upskilling and reskilling from career entry-to-exit. We need to empower entrepreneurs who can close the innovation gap by commercializing the thousands of space-technology patents laying idle that can improve life on Earth. To compound the challenge further, other nations (allies and adversaries) are also working fast to cultivate a vibrant workforce and to attract skilled talent from abroad to serve the exact same needs.

This presents a global priority for the future of space, and there are no easy answers. For all the innovative marvels of engineering and science that make space operations possible and better life on Earth in every industry, the space community must marshal the same spirit and commitment in building a broad and more diverse workforce if it is to fulfill the trillion-dollar prediction and pioneer new frontiers on Earth and beyond. This includes:

Bringing together young professionals and veterans in the space community to encourage collaboration and mentorship that transfers knowledge to the future space workforce.
Engendering access and a fascination with space subject matters among lifelong learners and ensuring we do so equitably, regardless of gender, geography, ethnicity or economic background.
Coordinating with academia, industry and government to forge the synergies that result when the talent pipeline is driven by educators toward the real-world needs of businesses and the public sector.

Oftentimes, news outlets and geopolitical figures look to frame the current space community in antiquated terms of “East versus West.” Such classifications are a vestige of the Cold War and do not reflect the real space community or the environment in which it operates today. This is not an “us versus them” competition. Rather, every country, corporation, and community is competing for the same talent that can take us to space and allow us to stay.

If we want the space economy to reach the potential that we envision for it, it will require a shared focus on improving education, a universal commitment to supporting innovation and an unwavering realization that by reaching into space, we elevate the quality of life for everyone on Earth while we reach for frontiers beyond it.

That’s a Space for all approach and a mission in which we should always aspire because when we do, no one will ever be left behind.

Thomas E. Zelibor is the CEO of the Space Foundation, a nonprofit serving the space community, and a retired Rear Admiral of the U.S. Navy.