Friday, January 10, 2020

What Inspires Space Millennials?

Original image by NASA
Will millennials become the Artemis Generation?

“I have a celebrity crush on Elon Musk. I love his brazen, fearless approach. I see him doing more than just energizing space exploration itself; I see him inspiring my generation to be bold and fearless in the face of 'impossible' missions.”
- Interviewee quote from Rise of the Space Age Millennials.

Apollo inspired a generation. In a short time, NASA accomplished the seemingly impossible. The iconic Apollo 11 Moon landing unified much of the world as people from all walks of life gathered around TVs to watch those first steps into a new era.

Many from the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946 – 1964) remember this defining moment from their childhood or early adulthood. Some were so captivated by the moment and the movement, they pursued space careers and remained lifelong advocates of space exploration.

Last summer, the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 with great fanfare and reflection. Nostalgic essays, books, and films looked back on the grand days of the early space program and the feats NASA was able to accomplish.

But for many, including millennials (born approximately 1981 – 2000), Apollo 50th anniversary celebrations were a source of frustration. Millennials were not yet born during those glory days. No one from the millennial generation or Generation Z (born approximately after 2000), and many from Generation X (born approximately 1965 – 1980) have ever seen humans step foot on another world. If we could land humans on the Moon 50 years ago, why can't we do so today?

Older millennials grew up during the era of the Space Shuttle program. For many, their source of inspiration were astronauts floating in the International Space Station, doing somersaults, playing with droplets of water, and advancing science. For many millennials in the United States, the space shuttles were all they knew of vehicles capable of taking humans off-world.

Robotic space voyagers also served as a source of inspiration for generations born after Apollo. Mars rovers Pathfinder's Sojourner (landed 1997), Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity (landed 2004), and Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity (landed 2012) brought the red planet into the imaginations of the millennial generation. The astrophysics-advancing Hubble Space Telescope (launched 1990), Saturn-exploring Cassini–Huygens (launched 1997), Pluto-imaging New Horizons (launched 2006), and exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope (launched 2009) are also among the missions that inspired millennials to contemplate the cosmos.

But by far, the #1 source of inspiration and excitement cited by over 100 millennials I interviewed for my upcoming book, Rise of the Space Age Millennials (released January 17, 2020), is the emerging commercial space industry, or “NewSpace.” Top of the list: SpaceX with its charismatic founder Elon Musk and its impressive rocket booster landings, enormous Starship, and ambitious plans, including human missions to the Moon and Mars. The quote at the top is by a millennial interviewee in Space Millennials and echoes many of the other interviewees' sentiments.

With feats never before seen (landing two rocket boosters back to the ground simultaneously) to public-engaging showmanship (launching a Falcon Heavy carrying a Tesla Roadster with a spacesuited mannequin playing David Bowie music), it's no surprise SpaceX motivates and excites millennials just now entering and growing in their space careers. Other sources of NewSpace inspiration from my millennial interviewees: Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Bigelow Aerospace.

This isn't to say Apollo didn't also inspire millennials. Apollo inspired me when I was a child. NASA's current human exploration Moon-to-Mars program Artemis calls the explorers of this time the Artemis Generation. When humanity returns to our nearest celestial neighbor again, many will be inspired for generations to come. Perhaps, with determination, luck, and public-private partnerships, millennials and Generation Z will be celebrating the Apollo 11 centennial from on the Moon in 2069.

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