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Observations from the Second Space Exploration Conference: Listening to the Next Generation

Status Report From: Spacealumni.com
Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006

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Editor's note: These comments were posted by Christopher Harrison on Spacealumni.com on 6 December 2006. These are his own thoughts and do not reflect the opinion or policies of his employer. These comments are republished here with the author's permission.

I was able to attend the conference as a student exhibitor in the Future Exploration Leaders Gallery. The exhibit area was among the best I have seen. Exceptional exhibits by many of the major aerospace companies and some newcomers who I had never seen before. As a student and industry co-op, I was excited to see Boeing, NGC, NASA, and the AIAA investing in the future by inviting 13 student groups to present their research in various aerospace topics. It was a great way for industry professionals to show their support for the future generation and for students to network with potential employers and industry players who deal in their area of research.

I was able to attend all but two of the sessions held during this conference. By far, the most beneficial and time-worthy session was "Sustaining the Vision". This session dealt with what is needed to ensure that the Vision for Space Exploration garners the support necessary to achieve it. In particular, methods for gaining and maintaining the support of the younger generation were discussed. In a deviation from the format used in previous sessions, this session became a public forum. This opened the door for anyone in the audience to step up to a microphone and speak their mind or ask a question to the panel chaired by Pete Worden (Center Director, NASA Ames Research Center). It was agreed by all panelists that the 18-30 year old demographic would be the future leaders of space exploration and more must be done to garner their support.

One panelist, from George Mason University, reported on a recent study she conducted which found that nearly 50% of students polled believed that nothing beneficial has ever come from NASA. Of all students polled, almost 25% were doubtful that the U.S. really landed on the Moon. She emphasized that so many these days are getting a majority of their information from the internet, a place where many conspiracy theories are born.

When opened to public questions, the most common theme expressed was that NASA should use some of its budget to advertise (to the target 18-30 year old demographic). Ideas ranging from more television commercials to more internet advertising were discussed. Absent from the public forum were the opinions of the age group in question. Noticing this, Keith Cowing from NASA Watch suggested that the Apollo generation stop listening to each other about how to reach the future generations and start listening to the opinions of the future generation themselves. It was at this point that the greatest single idea of the conference was expressed.

An 18-year old student from Texas A&M University spoke about his encounter with space. He spoke of how NASA, over the years, managed to lose sight of what got it to the Moon in the 1960s: inspiration. In his opinion, NASA needs to go back into the schools and inspire young kids to dream about the future and what space exploration has to offer. He shared that he himself would not be in college had someone from NASA not taken an interest in his future and made him feel like he could accomplish anything.

As a member of the audience throughout the conference, this was the only time I noticed that all BlackBerry and laptop users stopped and gave their full attention to the matter at hand. After this student's speech, many more were encouraged to stand up and speak about the topics creating a barrier between NASA and the future generations. One student suggested that NASA focus its efforts on reaching students and young professionals in the information arenas they use (Facebook, MySpace, etc). These websites are the primary means of communication among college students and advertisement costs are almost non-existent.

Another student, a winner of the NASA Means Business competition, simply asked what he could do to help NASA reach the young generation. He noted that NASA supports many competitions among students to create advertisements and public service announcements about NASA, yet few, if any, of these advertisements make it past the eyes and ears of those in the community. He stated that if NASA wants to truly reach their successors, they need to stop "preaching to the choir" and start targeting those outside of the aerospace community who are not already convinced of the benefits of human space exploration.

Personally, I spoke about NASA's current advertising programs. Many of their advertisements and short videos concerning the Vision for Space Exploration feature short video clips of President Kennedy's 1961 speech interspersed with clips of President Bush's vision announced in 2004. This could be seen by simply walking through the exhibition hall. Almost all short videos and handouts concerning the VSE featured President John F. Kennedy prominently. Sometimes, President George Bush was not even included. One of the main opinions/questions of college students is "Why should it be such a big deal that NASA is going back to the Moon and even more, why is it taking twice as long to get on the surface as it did for the entire Apollo program to take place?" Featuring President Kennedy as the primary figure in these advertisements only fuels the opinion expressed above.

Keeping the past achievements of NASA in mind as we return to the Moon is important, but it should not define the agency as it is currently doing. To attract the future generation of explorers, NASA needs to establish itself as the agency of the future, not the agency of the past. A return to the Moon is merely the stepping stone necessary to set foot on Mars and beyond, but advertisements would have the audience think the return to the Moon is the main goal of the VSE.

Finally, the single most powerful advertisement tool NASA has are the employees themselves. Anyone who works in the industry is usually quick to share with you where they were on July 20, 1969, or what other event sparked their interest in space. Many of our hearts still skip a beat when we watch a Space Shuttle launch. However, few of these heart-felt opinions are ever shared outside of work or "the choir". Taking the time to share these feelings with young students and those outside of the aerospace industry is vital to sustaining the VSE and recruiting the explorers of tomorrow. PAO is understandably not able to visit every school and give presentations on NASA, but that does not mean we cannot take the time to visit our children's schools and share our excitement and passion with them.

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