WASHINGTON — Among the 100 people working the halls of Congress this week advocating for a stronger U.S. presence in space are 29 college students from across the country.
A key part of the Citizens for Space Exploration’s annual trip to D.C. has been the inclusion of college students who have a keen interest in space-related careers.
Look at the new generation of space companies, and you can see that there is a youth movement underway.
As Space X, Orbital, Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada and others ramp up their operations for the commercial side of the space business, they are recruiting engineering students who want to work at the ground-level of the next wave of space exploration.
For those advocating for a robust federal government involvement in space exploration, the best advocates are often the college students who make the trip, David Braun of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership said.
“Before 1492 many people in Europe may have argued that it was a waste of money to send Columbus on a wild-goose chase through uncharted waters,” Matthew Welch, a mechanical engineering student at Clemson University, said. “Yet, his discovery profoundly affected the entire world. One has to wonder, if not for the pioneering spirit of Columbus and those who funded his voyage, where would we be today?
“Space exploration is the same concept.”
The challenge space exploration offers for this and future generations inspires University of Florida student Kelsey Gardner.
“Being involved with the space programs encourages people to challenge their minds and hopefully inspire the younger generations to study science,” she said. “I am a woman in engineering. Based on some studies, there are less than 5 to 20 percent of women in the engineering work field.
“I was inspired to study math and science because of the NASA space program. I fell in love with building rockets because of the NASA (University Student Launch Initiative) competition.”
Gardner worries that the U.S. is losing ground in science and technology fields in part because of a lack of commitment to the space race.
“If you compare the U.S. to other countries now that are involved in research, it has changed significantly,” she said. “The U.S. is not one of the leading countries, and I feel that part of the reason is due to the lack of drive to explore new things and to push boundaries.”
So as she makes the trip to D.C., Gardner is hoping to convince members of Congress that a public investment translates into a new leadership role for the U.S. in space exploration.
“There are so many things about space that we still do not know about,” Gardner said. “With the funding and support from the public and government, space exploration can go anywhere, and the U.S. can become a leading research country again.”
That may be a concept going against the grain for elected officials.
“The leaders of this country need to step back for a moment and stop worrying only about themselves and being re-elected,” Welch said. “Instead, they need to act for the greater good of every citizen out there by funding entities which have proved capable of enhancing and progressing American culture. “
Welch worries that cuts in the NASA budget or the lack of increased funding will have ramifications down the line.
“By cutting $200 million from the planetary science portion of NASA — the same section that successfully landed the Mars rover — the United States is taking a step back from innovation and understanding about our solar system,” he said.
The investment would create a market for higher paying jobs and help click-start a sluggish economy, Welch said.
Like Gardner, Welch hopes to parlay his studies into a career at NASA.
“I have always wanted to work for NASA one day as a rocket scientist,” he said. “I want to help solve the big questions out there and help America be the first ones to step onto Mars.”