A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kenney Space Center in Florida in June 2017. (Tony Gray/NASA)

PERSPECTIVE: ‘Space Force’ Can’t Lift Off Without Grooming Strong Talent Base

Part 2 of a three-part series on a U.S. space force. Read Part 1 here.

As awe-inspiring and wicked cool as rockets, satellites and other spacecraft may be, the most important part of an American space force for the homeland is the talent – the human capital that makes it all possible. That includes all of the engineering, coding, designing, building, launching, transmissions and more to keep our presence in space up, orbiting and operating 24-7. That trained and experienced resource capital is also fundamental to America’s military and intelligence mechanisms and operations that provide for our national security.

Not to be left out, the same talent pool is also essential to the private sector as they deliver services to customers domestically and internationally ranging from supply chain operations, GPS mapping, telemedicine, financial transactions, communications/broadcasting and more. Given the costs of doing business in this arena (it’s not cheap!) and the clientele that that they have served – the military industrial complex, telecommunications industries, etc. – it is no surprise that the space industry is known for having higher-income jobs. The work that Boeing, Lockheed, Northrup and other legacy space infrastructure providers do is high-risk, high-impact and high-dollar.

That work, though, is being challenged creatively, operationally and economically by an emerging class of entrepreneurial space upstarts who are rewriting all the conventional rules that have governed this landscape over the past 60 years. For as annoyed as these legacy companies may be at these “young whippersnappers,” competing against them for business with the government, military and private sector, companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, OneWeb and others are dramatically changing for the better the costs, access and operations in space with new ideas, means and potential. They are by many measures “unconventional” in their approaches, as well as in the attention that they bring to space.

Not since the launch of the Shuttle era in April 1981 has public interest and enthusiasm for America’s space program been this high. But this time, it is the private sector – a “Space Force” unto itself, and not NASA that has captured the bulk of attention. SpaceX’s inaugural launch of its Heavy Falcon on Feb. 6, along with Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster with “Starman” in the driver’s seat, was probably the most talked about space launch activity since the opening of the Shuttle era and the Apollo era’s moon landings.

But before you can launch your sportscar into space for the most iconic and epic of road trips, you have to have building blocks – skilled, talented and experienced people that make the rockets and systems truly “Lift OFF!”

Fundamental to all of the “Space Forces” is having students and educators at all levels (K-12, technical schools, higher education) versed in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with some “A” for “arts” thrown in to give them STEAM for real creative “lift off.” Without those refined skills, dreams of exploring the stars will never become an operational or accessible reality.

That is where President Trump’s bold vision for building a Space Force shortchanges itself as the administration’s budget proposals for NASA (the most visible and recognized space “brand” in the world) eliminates the agency’s Education Office. While small in size and budget, this part of the agency probably has a bigger, more positive and far deeper impact upon students and teachers in America and across the world than any other part of the NASA (outside of its tremendous social media outreach). [Full disclosure – I worked in the NASA Office of Education 2002-2003 and I know firsthand they punch way above their weight class in reach and impact.]

You can’t build any “Force” without “Foundation,” and investment in STEAM at NASA and at all space-engaging assets in the public and private sectors is as fundamental to American leadership in space as oxygen is to our breathing.

Part of that investment equation, though, goes beyond federal appropriation dollars. There are any number of organizations such as the Space Foundation, the Mars Society, the National Science Teachers Association, the Challenger Centers, GTSC, countless museums and science centers and others that engage teachers, students and the general public with programming and resources to inspire the next generation of explorers. The well-known corporate titans – Boeing, Lockheed, Northrup – and their counterparts/competitors do their part to support education efforts at all levels as well.

But sustained investment, as well as effective curricula that truly nurtures the next generation of explorers, is fundamental if you really want to be the greatest pioneering nation of the final frontier.

An unready, unprepared and unskilled foundation will never put you in orbit or take you any other place you envision, either.

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Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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