For me and my twentysomething peers – known as Generation Y – we

always have had a space program as part of our daily lives. We have been

able to call up television, weather and navigation services via satellite day or night. We have never known anything else.

Think of us this way: The space shuttle is the only human-rated rocket my generation has ever seen fly from Florida. The Challenger explosion happened one year before I was born. To us, the Mercury and Apollo programs are only part of our history books.

Technology doesn’t intimidate us. We’re the ones who knew how to use personal computers in elementary school while our parents couldn’t figure out how to program the clock on their VCRs.

Thanks to the entertainment we’ve grown up with, we’re fluent in concepts such as warp drive and quantum singularities. The suggestion that we’re not alone in this galaxy is met with logical discussion, not accusations of lunacy.

Now equipped with our college degrees, iPods, Facebook accounts and ability to creatively remix YouTube videos, we’re entering the work force ready to make our mark on the world.

Many of us have chosen space as the place we want to spend our lives because we feel it is one of the most exciting, inspirational and potentially fulfilling career paths to pursue. My friends and I are shocked when the assumption is made that our generation isn’t interested in space.

For me, the space program is where we have the greatest opportunity to learn things we’ve never known before. That’s what appeals to me most. Sure, there are oceans to dive and jungles to traverse, but these environments are fairly limited when compared to an infinite universe. The starry blanket that cloaks our night sky holds so many keys to theoretical and applicable knowledge on Earth. Plain and simple: I am hooked on space.

The Space Age is 50 years old this year; we can’t possibly have revealed all the secrets of the universe yet. In order to unveil more, we must achieve our current goals.

First, the space shuttle needs to help us complete assembly of the international space station. While many have argued the usefulness of the international space station, no one can deny the engineering knowledge we have gained from this project – let alone the experience in spaceflight operations and international relations.

Second, development of Ares 1 crew launch vehicle needs to be completed as quickly as possible so we can retire the

shuttle and move on to flying the Orion crew exploration vehicle. Orion is the next phase and will take humans to the Moon for the first time since 1972. Some argue that we’ve already been to the Moon six times – why go again? Yes, 12 men have visited the surface of the Moon over the course of six separate missions

. The problem is – none of them were me. I want to go. So do my friends.

We need to go to the Moon, among other reasons, to make sure we’ve learned enough to pack for the longer trip to Mars. In terms of science, the idea of building a giant radio telescope on the Moon’s far side is worthy enough all by itself. But it would be nice to learn how to use lunar minerals to create rocket propellant, exotic metal alloys or furnish Helium 3 to laboratories on Earth for researching fusion.

And while space exploration is most often associated with pure science, there are other horizons to reach beyond to find new knowledge for practical and sometimes profitable use.

Those horizons include the field of engineering; the process of designing, building, testing and launching rockets; conducting operations in Earth orbit; and expanding our presence into the solar system.

Economics is another horizon to look beyond because new methods for making money using space assets will be found. Traditional government programs already are making room for entrepreneurs who see using space in creative ventures.

But is it all too expensive? NASA’s budget represents about a half of a penny of a tax dollar. Personally, I don’t think we’re spending enough. This great nation

certainly can afford to invest more on something that gives so much back in terms of real economic benefit and the intangible spirit of exploration and fulfilling a destiny. Exploration even promotes mutually beneficial global partnerships. Space is so much more than a scientific venture, though that’s what prompted me to pursue it.

We are taking the tough classes, graduating, applying for industry jobs and beginning careers that will allow us to reach farther into space than ever before. Along the way we hope to make our world a better place and learn something we didn’t know before. Knowledge is power. And space exploration can lead the way for a prosperous tomorrow.

Kelly Billon is a member of the advisory board for the Coalition for Space Exploration and a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla.