Friday, January 3, 2020

Rising Space Millennials to Mars & Beyond

Mars image courtesy of NASA

Astronauts landing on Mars. Permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars. Private space stations. Advanced rocket propulsion. Deep space tourism cruises. The discovery of life on one of our Solar System moons or a distant exoplanet. Even global peace and unity through space activity. These are some of the predictions and dreams space millennials have for their time in the workforce as described in my upcoming book, Rise of the Space Age Millennials.

The summer of 2019 was all about reliving the glory days of Apollo (as we remember them now). The astounding achievement of landing astronauts on the Moon in 1969 deserves the praise and celebration it received 50 years later. Written accounts and oral histories contributed to our nostalgic reflections on what we've accomplished over the past half-century.

Relatively few pondered what we'll accomplish over the next half-century. Where will humanity be in space when we celebrate the centennial of the Apollo 11 lunar landing? Can you imagine 2069?

The generations that built the early space age will be long gone by then. The current rising working generation of millennials will be nearing retirement. Generation Z and the generations to come will be carrying the torch forward for humanity into the cosmos. I asked approximately 100 millennials working in the space sector or studying to work in the space sector what they hope we will accomplish before we retire.

Refreshingly, their outlook was bright! A few cynics offered skepticism we'd get much farther out into space than we already are. But the vast majority of respondents had lofty goals and high expectations. I fully admit to a selection bias in my sample. All respondents were working or pursuing work in a field they love and only those willing to share their dreams with me responded. There's also something to be said for the optimism of youth before it's crushed into realism and cynicism by delayed projects, canceled programs, and broken promises. And yet, millennials in their 20s and 30s who have already seen their share of shifting priorities and timelines still remained optimistic.

Mars Mars Mars. No destination calls to millennials the way Mars does. Many millennials shared my desire to return humans to the Moon, but almost universally, Mars was the most important goal. Just about every one of the millennials respondents believes they will witness humans land on the red planet in their lifetimes. NASA's current focus on taking the Artemis Generation to the Moon, then Mars, just as Constellation and other programs previously promised, is in line with millennial expectations for the future. Whether it's a government program or a private company such as SpaceX, millennials assume a future on Mars.

How we get to Mars is still an area of active debate. Some millennials call for a push reminiscent of the Apollo era, complete with an Apollo-sized NASA budget, to achieve a grand goal for the global space community. Some millennials call for a more incremental approach, improving life support systems, radiation shielding, and propulsion technology before sending our pioneering astronauts deeper into space than ever before. Some call for a large government initiative while others put their faith in the ambitious of innovative new companies. The path we take is still to be written.

Who participates will look different than the Right Stuff astronauts of 50 years ago. Millennials in the United States represent a more diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural population than previous generations. Each successive generation is getting more diverse. On average, millennials also value diversity and inclusivity more than their older colleagues. Many millennials I interviewed mentioned the imperative of a more representative space workforce and the importance of involving the international community. Future human expeditions to Mars will be more representative of the global population.

It was a pleasure getting to know my peers better through these interviews. For more insights on these topics or others, I invite you to read Rise of the Space Age Millennials (released January 17, 2020).

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