Sixty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy spoke to the nation, calling for an ambitious space program that would land Americans on the Moon by the end of the decade. Since then, new milestones reached by space explorers grow more phenomenal every year. After 60 years of exploration and 20 years of humans aboard the International Space Station, the once intangible allure of space has never been more in reach for humanity.
Despite these successes, we are seeing the space industry increasingly lose sight of one of its core goals, i.e., using these achievements to stimulate economic growth. This should be central to our philosophy of space exploration and development. Exploration throughout history has been motivated, at least in part, by new economic opportunities, where necessity prevailed over vanity. But in recent years, space exploration has become too focused on pushing the envelope and achieving the unbelievable. We must not neglect the foundation that got us there in the race for achieving front-page worthy goals.
Our current programs are treating filling the space jobs of the future like an afterthought. NASA activities support 312,000 jobs nationwide, according to its economic impact report. However, for the majority of Americans, joining this workforce is not attainable. That’s because one of the shortcomings of the space community is failing to showcase the variety of jobs that exist right now, and those that will be needed over the coming years. You don’t need to be selected for an astronaut program or earn a PhD in astrophysics to join in.
Correcting this problem need not be complicated. NASA already has a $50 million Space Grant system that funds STEM education. It is time we establish a “Workforce for the Future” grant system that funds skilled labor certifications as well. Right now, we need more skilled labor as well as Humanities graduates supporting our space exploration goals. We know how a rocket is made, now we need to determine what it means to be a human in space. The art, the culture, the law, the policy – what does this look like, and how will we build our way there?
To succeed, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that our STEM workforce looks like the country we live in. This means increasing representation of women, minorities, people from underserved communities, and those from diverse backgrounds. It means supporting those who aren’t necessarily interested in STEM careers at first but want to make a difference as humanity migrates into the rest of the solar system.
While it may not be NASA’s responsibility to create the workforce that can manage hotels in space, the federal government must play a role in incentivizing a sustainable path to meet the space workforce goals of the future and ensure a diverse, trained, and certified pool. That means bridging the gap between science and the public, inviting everyone in to help solve the problems of the future with innovation and diversity of thought. That’s how startups and entrepreneurs spur innovation, with low barriers to entry, support from industry leaders looking for new ideas to solve big problems, and rapid iteration.
For too long, astronauts have been people who are “not like us.” It’s time we stopped thinking that “space is hard” and start bridging the gap between space exploration and Main Street. As we see more people who look like us working off the planet, the more we will realize that becoming a multiplanet species isn’t unattainable. It is the next place humans are headed. Instead of viewing the space environment like the ultimate bucket list destination, we should be looking at it like any other place of wealth and wonder where those brave enough, foolish enough, or determined enough can find a future for themselves.
Tim Chrisman is the co-founder and executive director of Foundation for The Future (f4f.space), author of ”Humanity in Space” and a former Army Special Operations Officer.
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