Guest column: Launching the next space age
This month, the Space Foundation launches “The Next Space Age.” That’s our theme for the 25th National Space Symposium, the premier annual gathering of the global space community. As it suggests, the symposium will reflect major shifts in the economies, philosophies and mechanics of space, with these themes emerging:
• Space has become a commercially dominated endeavor.
• Space is global and no nation – not even our own – can claim uncontested superiority.
• Education is critical to maintaining – or regaining – space technology leadership.
• The U.S. space program is at a crossroads, and we urgently need to move ahead.
Although government wields influence, space is no longer primarily a government/military activity. More than 70 percent of the global space economy is commercial, ranging from manufacturing to private launch services to personal spaceflight to products that touch our everyday lives, such as GPS applications. Broad industry representation in Space Foundation membership and on our symposium program clearly demonstrates this trend.
The international space arena is burgeoning. Last month, Iran independently launched a spacecraft into Earth orbit; India has reached the moon and set its sights on human spaceflight; Russia and Europe maintain strong positions; Japan has a fleet of robotic exploration spacecraft as well as a contingent of experienced astronauts; Sri Lanka has announced plans to form a space agency and launch its first satellite; and China is perhaps the fastest-growing world space power.
In all, 14 countries operate or are building spaceports, 25 operate satellites and 50 have part ownership in satellites. International attendees and speakers are integrated throughout our four-day program, including a panel on non-U.S. space activity. The kind of smart, visionary people the space business requires must be developed and nurtured. Sadly, only 4 percent of U.S. workers are engineers or scientists, and the number we graduate is plummeting. Only one-third of new engineering Ph.D.s from U.S. universities are U.S. citizens. To turn our kids into rocket scientists requires education and inspiration.
This fundamental Space Foundation tenet is reflected throughout the symposium: onsite teacher and student programs; a Space Career Fair; special events for and presentations by new generation space professionals; and awards for advances in space-related education, for making space concepts more accessible to kids, and for technologies that make life on Earth better.
As I am writing this, we don’t have the NASA administrator on our agenda – because the Obama administration has yet to name one. Although this may soon be remedied, the delay is symptomatic of the under-funding the U.S. space program has endured since the Apollo program ended. The investment that got us to the moon represented better than 4 percent of annual federal spending. In the interim four decades, NASA has limped along on a budget equal to, on average, about one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget.
Now, as our leadership in space is challenged by competitors in Europe, the Pacific and Middle East (and as we face space shuttle retirement and a multi-year gap without U.S. human spaceflight capabilities) it’s time to make space a priority again. We may hear more challenges and opportunities than solutions at the symposium, but the dialogue among the world’s highest-ranking commercial, civil and military space leaders is critical to getting our space program back on track.
Ultimately, the message coalescing through our agenda is that space equals opportunity – if we take advantage of it. Space can re-inspire a new generation to become well-educated. Space can re-energize global competitiveness. Space can stimulate our economy. Space can make us better world citizens. And space activities can make us proud to be Americans.
That’s “The Next Space Age.” The people who will make it happen will be here in Colorado at the 25th National Space Symposium. It may be a global event, but it is held here – and the Space Foundation is based here – because Colorado has hundreds of local companies and locally based military leaders involved in the space industry.
The 25th National Space Symposium will be held March 30 – April 2 at The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. For information, go to www.NationalSpaceSymposium.org.