NASA, space sector throw party for future space leaders

On the heels of yesterday’s announcement that NASA wants to erect living quarters on the moon, NASA officials and aerospace industry executives are holding a recruiting reception tonight for college students and young professionals. The target audience is those students who might eventually lead the lunar exploration program planned for 2020.

The reception, sponsored by Northrop Grumman (NGC), Booz Allen Hamilton and SpaceX, is being held with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Space Exploration Conference in Houston, which runs Dec. 4 through Dec. 6.

Pete Worden, the director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, will make a brief presentation, as will a few senior managers from the aerospace sector, including Alan Ladwig, NGC manager for NASA and civil space programs in Integrated Systems who worked at NASA until 1999 as the associate administrator for policy and plans.

The hosts are hopeful that the event will attract college students nationwide and young professionals currently working in the aerospace community.

“It's always my highlight when I get to talk to them,” Ladwig said. “They have fresh ideas. They haven't been beat up by the system and they're the ones who are going to take over all this at some point. “

For NGC, tonight’s event is part of a larger initiative to guarantee that the nation’s future workforce has the science and engineering skills needed to pursue space exploration.

Recently, the company sent grade-school teachers aloft in a jet that performed parabolic maneuvers to generate moments of zero gravity. Last spring, NGC announced a three-year agreement to sponsor NASA's annual moonbuggy race, in which student engineering teams worldwide design, build and race a vehicle similar to the original lunar rover.

Many of those who laid the foundation for NASA’s space program and the aerospace industry will be retiring in the next five years, said Brooks McKinney, a spokesman for NGC Integrated Systems.

“The first person to walk on Mars is probably in grade school today, maybe kindergarten,” he said. “We need to find ways to make science, education and engineering cool subjects.”

Many students today view Apollo 11’s landing on the moon as something irrelevant to them that happened in another era, recent research reveals. And many are more concerned with major problems on Earth, such as poverty and health care coverage, McKinney said.

“What the government needs to do is to bring to the American people a clear, crisp compelling case for why space exploration is valuable to the country,” he said, adding that it will be a tricky proposition. “By definition, you're going out there to discover what you don't know.”

Other NASA officials invited to meet the students tonight include Scott Horowitz, associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, and Doug Cooke, the Exploration deputy associate administrator.

They want to share their excitement about space exploration and United States’ plan to return to the moon, said NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey.

“They also want to stress the importance of having a good supply of talented and capable young leaders to help sustain the lunar exploration program far into the future,” she said.

On Monday, NASA unveiled plans to develop a solar-powered lunar base near one of the poles of the moon. With the outpost, astronauts would live off the land, make preparations for journeying to Mars and conduct scientific investigations.

Space enthusiasts say events like tonight’s recruiting reception are also critical to military, commercial and satellite broadcast space programs. NASA’s $16 billion budget is only one piece of a $180 billion industry, said George Whitesides, executive director at the National Space Society.

“While NASA is often perceived as one of the sexier parts of the sector, it's really not the only piece,” he said. “I do think that NASA must connect its aspiration to go to the moon with how those plans will benefit people on earth.”

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