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A Bright Ray of Hope

By Keith Cowing
August 18, 2006

Editor’s note: I have spent the last few days as a participant in the NASA Next Generation Exploration Conference at NASA ARC – a fascinating assembly of young space professionals and students from around the U.S. – and the world. This has been a refreshing break from the cynicism I usually encounter as I “watch” NASA. These folks see their future in space – and they are determined to make it happen. A moment ago I made an offer to all participants to post anything they might wish to send me about this conference – and what they’d like to see come from it.

Send your comments to

Attendees only, please – and let me know if I can use your name and affiliation.

Your comments thus far:

Three Points:

Word-smithing: I echo Ryan Caron’s comment regarding the use of the word future. When reading through the “Lunar Exploration Themes” I made a similar comment to our breakout group. Of course we’re talking about future missions, and removing the word “future” implies a sense of application to today, not just continuing to push something off to “the future”. What we’re doing has application today, not just the future. Along similar lines, the “Themes” need to be written in the active voice, as in we’re “do-ING” to just “to do.”

Seriously though, will this be taken seriously? Even within the moderators of our small breakout group, I heard the “filter” already being applied of “we’re not going to pass this along because the NASA higher-ups won’t take that into consideration.” First of all, it never will be considered if we, even amongst ourselves, don’t pass it along. Second, the comments need to be taken seriously by anyone who truly wants to create a better document. This was not an exercise of criticism, but it was an exercise of constructive criticism. There were still references to “system of systems” and descriptions such as “It costs a bundle to send a pound of anything to the lunar surface”. To improve these documents, the comments must be taken seriously.

Public Outreach Philosophy: Should it really be NASA’s job to engage, inspire, and educate the public? What other government agency has this as a charter? Does NASA have this charter because NASA spends government money? (Other agencies have more federal budget but does the Department of Energy inspire the next generation of particle physicists, or the Department of Agriculture engage the public regarding resource management?) If other agencies do not have this charter, does NASA have this specific charter because what NASA does is more “cool” than other agencies? It’s cool to us because we’re in it, but that doesn’t diminish the interesting nature of what non aeronautics and aerospace folks pursue. I would suggest we space advocates might be putting the cart in the front of the horse. I’m guessing the Apollo program was the most public inspiring time for NASA and I doubt “engaging the public” was a stated goal of the program (though it may have been an element on the political front). Public engagement certainly was an outcome of the accomplishments, but it is the accomplishment itself that engages the public, not just words saying you are going to do so.

Rich Sturmfels, NASA Academy alumni, though an alumni of the NASA Academy, the opinions and statements herein are solely those of the author

In my opinion, the Next Generation Exploration Conference was brief but productive meeting of some of the more passionate members of the international space community. While many of these enthusiasts were college students, recent grads, or young professionals, it was absolutely not an amateurish meeting of kids. Various age groups were represented; from Civil Servants in their 50’s to a troop of Girl Scouts. The NGEC gave us the opportunity to congregate, collaborate, and contribute to the documentation of our common exploration objectives.

There are two things that I hope will result from this conference. First, I would like to see the proceedings used to lay out a plan to progressively increase humanity’s activities in space, both through NASA as well as through the private sector. Second, and more importantly, I hope this conference signals that more people within NASA are beginning to acknowledge this growing community of motivated individuals – many of them young, up-and-coming space professionals – who have been increasingly active through organizations like the Space Generation, SEDS, the Mars Society, etc. As a card carrying member of this group, we recognize the importance of space and we demand that appreciable steps be taken to increase humanity’s knowledge and access to space, even if we have to take them ourselves. I do not have a good suggestion for what we should be called, but I am certain that within a short time we will earn our title as the explorers, the star-reachers, the spacefarers. For now, we have more important things to work on than names.

Marshal Blessing, alumnus of the NASA Academy

I’ve been hearing about the next generation for a long time, and frankly I’m getting sick of it. The name itself implies a delay of the grand things we’re supposed to be doing. When does the “next generation” become “this generation”? Its time to get to work. There’s a lot to work to be done to get space from where it is now to where we want it to be. But that only means that we can’t procrastinate any longer.

Sincerely, Ryan Caron, Aerospace Engineering Student, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

I was also a participant and thought it was great. This meeting should become a repeating event. This is one of the few ways to try and inject fresh views and ideas into plans for exploration. I was particularly excited about the prospect of asteroid exploration. This seems like the logical next step.

At this conference, a few presenters came across more like cheer leaders than technical advisors. Mainly, I think this was a result of the limited time (~1 day) that each group (~20 people) was given to generate recommendations for the world-wide exploration effort. These recommendations, of course, needed to be translated into the wonderful language of Power Point. The presenters were then tasked to deliver their group’s recommendations in a cohesive fashion to a very diverse audience.

No doubt, many of the original messages were smeared, and consequently the audience may have perceived that these “kids” do not know what they are talking about. The individuals managing the conference proceedings should take care to accurately represent the joint opinions of each group. The proceedings document should then show much more technical merit, and reveal some very innovative suggestions for the future of space exploration.

Vivake Asnani, NASA GRC

It appears we need to think of a better name for ourselves than “next generation explorers,” as your previous posting suggests we might be mistaken by the chicken farmers fostered by JSC. Any suggestions?

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.