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Gen Z and Millennials Take Space industry to Task

Young people are shaking up the world. Climate activist Greta Thunberg is an example of giving a voice to new generation, as she hopes to enable positive change when fighting climate change. It is only natural that young people will have equally ambitious plans to revolutionize the space industry. Here we talk to some Millennials and Generation Z people already making an impact in this industry and look at how they see the future.

We have all been there — satellite events around the globe where people are asked to give their vision for the future of space and the satellite industry. The caveat is usually the people on stage giving their predictions are people born between the 1960s and 1980s, and are likely to not be around to shape this vision as they head into retirement. But, what do the people that will actually shape the future think? Let’s meet the future.

Daisy Richardson

Daisy Richardson is 19 years old and a U.K.-based astrophysics student looking to carve out a career in space. She believes the space industry can have an incredibly positive impact on humanity. Richardson has taken part in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CanSat initiative. A CanSat is a simulation of a real satellite, integrated within the volume and shape of a soft drink can. The challenge for the students is to fit all the major subsystems found in a satellite such as power, sensors, and a communication system, into this minimal volume. The CanSat is then launched to an altitude of a few hundred meters by a rocket or dropped from a platform or captive balloon, and its mission begins: to carry out a scientific experiment and achieve a safe landing.

She describes the industry is as “futuristic and inspiring.” She thinks it is incredibly important for young people to be kept up-to-date with what it is going on within the space industry. However, she believes more needs to be done.

“I believe that every single subject that is taught in schools can have an application in space and the stigma that only physicists, mathematicians, and engineers are needed within the space industry needs to banished. I think more advertising of jobs involving other skills within the space industry such as construction, textiles, and biology would be a great step in showing young people that the space industry are a team which requires all skills, academic or not. I had never thought of satellite engineering as a career choice until I took part in CanSat and became more involved in the space industry,” she says.

As well as changing the perception of what skills are needed to take part in the space industry, there are other things that Richardson would like to see changed in the industry. The lack of women is a particular one. She says, “There are not enough women (in the industry). I don’t think women realize how much help they can be within the space industry and it is important that we support them and remove the stigma around it being a male industry. Just recently Jessica Meir arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) and I hope this inspires young women.”

Other issues include funding. Richardson admits that always having to ask for funding “isn’t a particularly enjoyable part of the of the industry.” She adds, “Although I want to talk about how exciting it is all the time when asking for money it can make it seem like that is all that the industry is about when in actual fact it is not.”

However, despite the fact that more that needs to be done, Richardson says it is a great industry to be involved in. So, how could things get even better? She says recently when talking to the many companies at the 2019 Space Conference, although many of them had STEM outreach projects established in local schools, few were aware of supporting a project such as the CanSat project which gives young people realistic space engineering experience.

“Surely the space industry would prefer it if their young employees had even more experience within the industry. If these projects were supported by large companies, such as the ones that attended the 2019 Space conference, they could be even more complex and the competition could be even more involved. If projects like this were also available for younger ages groups they could be targeted earlier and have experience in engineering right from when they enter school. This would definitely encourage more young people into the space industry as they could see just how many opportunities are available,” she says.

Andrew Ng

Andrew Ng is 23 years old and an intern at the Singapore Space and Technology Association. He admits that he has always been interested in the hardware side of space. He says that the idea of putting up physical products in space, maintaining them, and using them to serve society has been an interesting concept. “Such work offers one to bring together disciplines from a multitude of high tech industries: You will need to understand the physics of space; software coding; protecting your product against radiation or structural loadings that would break most objects. In short, you get to learn a lot in this line of work,” he adds.

He believes the space industry is ripe for disruption. When asked to elaborate, he says client demands in space applications have evolved and changed only very slightly over the decades. Ng does not hold back. He says these (applications) are fulfilled by overengineered, costly, and cumbersome solutions that are used only because they have been shown not to fail. “Such a business environment is prime for disruption, for someone who is willing to take risks to come up with more efficient solutions. Young people typically can have a larger risk appetite and are more willing to innovate, and so this is why I think space is really a place for young people to contribute,” he says.

I ask Ng what can be done to attract more young people to space. He says there must be more business interest. He believes that to most working people, monetary compensation still plays a key role. “It is a common observation that those working in engineering and science, predominant fields for the space industry, are paid lower than tech or finance in Singapore. This needs to change before we see more young people in space. Secondly, there should be more encouragement from parents and teachers to their children and students to discover different paths. Singaporeans are guided to tracks which are seen as more prestigious, such as medicine or law. Singaporeans should be guided to discover tracks for their own,” he says.

Ng believes that Millennials are armed with a wealth of technology and are trained more to use and integrate information from different fields. He thinks this stands in contrast to past generations where the acquisition of knowledge was a goal in and of itself. “Additionally, technology today has shifted focus from hardware to software. Of course, in the space industry, one cannot stray too far from hardware. However, the standardization of modules and operating systems leaves engineers with more time to tackle design challenges rather than fiddling around with programming or interface issues,” he says. “The current generation of developers and engineers have built the infrastructure and I believe that if used properly, Millennials can leverage on this to do great things.”

When asked about the future and how the industry could develop going forward, Ng points to Quantum Key distribution (QKD), which is currently in the development stage as something that could shake the industry up. Ng believes studies suggest that it could be highly beneficial to have the transmission of these signals in space. “As in-atmosphere transmissions are plagued by interference, doing the same in space offers marginal signal loss. This is the practical reason for doing this in space. QKD is sought after by organizations who require top-notch security. Without going into details, QKD offers an extremely robust encryption system to date due to its reliance on quantum physics principles. There is a business case for this technology. As both of these criteria are fulfilled, I believe that there will be a healthy industry for this technology in the near future,” he says.

William Dilley

William Dilley is 18 years old, and a physics student from the U.K. Like a number of young people, he thinks that “space is the future.” He says young people can learn to move faster. He says due to the complications and complexities of the space industry, progress can be slow, so slow someone’s life work may only just start a project. He believes this leads to engineers and scientists in the industry closing themselves off to new ideas. However, Dilley believes as new, younger minds are joining the industry, this mindset is fading away. He adds, “Our generation has a decaying planet to live with, our perception of the future is unlike older generations and it given us a new look on our situation. We have so much knowledge and new, creative ideas to give to the industry to secure our future on this planet and potentially on others in the future. A new view on the planet by fresh eyes and minds will lead to innovation, creativity, and new discoveries. By continually integrating young generations into space industry a constant flow of new ideas and perspectives will keep the space industry moving in a positive direction.”

In terms of how he sees the future, Dilley hopes we will have a permanent settlement on Mars, a society governed by earth or being independent. “Space can provide a second chance for humanity to learn from its mistakes and start anew on another planet. But our planet as a whole will need to work together to make a stable future with humans inhabiting many planets a reality,” he adds.

So, what can be done to attract more young people to the industry? “More STEM projects by large or small space companies. Hands on experience within the space industry will open the minds of students and excite them to join the space community. Aiming these projects at the ages 14 to 18 will have the biggest impact in my opinion as these are the ages where future careers are decided.,” Dilley advises.

James Brown

James Brown is 18 years old and a second-year aerospace engineering student at the University of Southampton in the U.K. He won the prestigious BTEC Engineering Student of the Year 2018 and is one of the bright young minds in the U.K. space industry. Brown says he chose to do a career in the space industry because he believes that it is one of the most challenging and inspiring tech industries out there. “It has such a wide variety of jobs across many specialties and has a big impact on modern society. From allowing you to get around better with satellite navigation to exploring other planets with robots millions of miles away,” he says.

In terms of the acquisition that the industry can be slow to move at times, Brown adds, “The space industry can move very slowly at times, but there are important reasons for that. You wouldn’t want to spend a huge amount of effort building a spacecraft with a new technology just to get into space to find it doesn’t work as expected, especially if it risks someone’s life. I’d like to see a bigger effort towards getting new technologies to a state where they can be used with confidence. All industries benefit from fresh new ideas to challenge existing technologies and push the limit of technology. A whole new generation of people more connected by and used to computer technologies will surely bring a good deal of these, much desired, new ideas.”

Hana Bird

Hana Bird is 23 years old and a spacecraft operations engineer at Surrey Satellites Technology Limited (SSTL). She says one of the reasons why the space industry is so exciting for young professionals is the feeling of being involved in something completely different.

“[You are] working with people who are top of their game and learning new things all the time. The industry is small, so it's easy to have your voice heard and if you've got a good idea, chances are someone will help you develop it! Graduates and senior engineers are often working alongside each other on the same projects which I think is great,” she says. “The best thing is that for most of the people who work in this industry, this isn't a job. It's like having a full time hobby! I also love that it's such a community, no question is too silly and so many people are willing to help you. There's also a fair amount of cake. While I can't think of many things I don't like, there is definitely one and that is; it's just so hard to become an astronaut.”

In terms of what Millennials/Generation Z can bring to the industry, Bird says she believes one of the leading areas is sustainability and looking after our surroundings. “A huge effort is being put in to how to make space missions as sustainable as possible and how to clean up after ourselves. Just recently, the UKSA has paved the way making it part of their policy to ensure that companies are being 'debris-conscious' in their space missions,” she says.

In terms of what more can be done to attract young people to the space industry, Bird thinks by introducing more space emphasis into schools, we can create a whole generation of young people who want to make a difference. Ensuring that STEM subjects are kept relevant and genuinely interesting is key. “Our young people are the generation who are more aware of the major changes around the world, and they want to help, and STEM industries such as the space industry are instrumental in facilitating,” she says.

I ask Bird about a new vertical where the satellite industry could make an impact. She says, “There's a lot to choose from, but my favorite would probably be from an article I read recently about software that's used for picking out certain features in satellite imagery being used to analyze brain scans for Alzheimer's.”

Ufuoma Ovienmhada

Ufuoma Ovienmhada is 22 years old and a second year Master’s student in the Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. In her general coursework, she studies space systems, numerical modelling techniques, and geographic information systems.

When asked about choosing the space industry, Ovienmhada says, “I felt like with other industries around the cell phone, the car, or social media — the impact of those technologies have already been felt on the world. On the other hand, I felt like the world-changing impact of the space industry was still yet to be determined and I could truly have a role.”

In her Masters thesis work, Ovienmhada applies satellite Earth Observation (EO) data to monitor the proliferation of an invasive plant species, called the water hyacinth, that was introduced into West Africa during the colonial period. She says the introduction of the water hyacinth has resulted in many negative economic and medical consequences for the region and the plant’s growth and harmful impacts will only be aggravated by climate change.

“I believe that by harnessing EO and principles from community-centered design, our team can create a tool powered by space technology that empowers humans with more information to make decisions about how to sustainably interact and manage their lived environment. Space technology, when designed in close collaboration with the important stakeholders, will definitely have a role in tackling issues in human-environmental systems all around the world,” she says.

Ovienmhada says her Utopian vision for a space-based society is one in which humans are encouraged to rethink all of the systems and ways of doing that we’ve created on Earth; and to eradicate the measures that we’ve used to define power and hierarchies on earth. She says the optimist in her wants to see humanity use space exploration to design new societal forms and norms that we haven’t even conceptualized yet.

“For example, what if there are political ideals and value systems beyond the limited spectrum of polarized options that exist on Earth? What if there are alternate ways of learning that go beyond the lecture style commonly used in many educational systems on Earth? Can we design more nuanced performance metrics than the commonly used ‘GDP’ to measure the success of a nation? What if nation-states did not exist anymore?” she says. “Space exploration and interplanetary habitation presents a unique opportunity for humanity to unlearn and learn again. I hope that the people leading the space-based societies seize the opportunity when the time comes.”

As the world has seen with the climate strikes and other political activism in the United States and around the world, Ovienmhada believes Millennials and Gen Z are very engaged in protecting the livelihoods and futures of marginalized identities and communities. “This boundless empathy and solidary across differences that young people have displayed are excellent characteristics to bring to the table in the space industry as we design space-based societies,” she adds.

In terms of challenges facing the industry, Ovienmhada says technology development in the space industry is moving quickly and she is fearful that technology will outpace the consideration of the design of social and political systems that will contain and operate these technologies. She adds what while she can clearly see the applications and benefits of space technology, sometimes she finds it disconcerting how much capital is required to operate the industry.

However, the future is exciting. “Today, we are at a point in society where technology is advancing so quickly that many science fiction futures feel within reach. It is exciting to work in the space industry as a young person today because I feel like, unlike in prior generations, the technological advances we make in the next few years/decades will likely enable large populations of humans, not just the most physically and intellectually elite among us, to experience space exploration,” she says. VS