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Cleared for Launch: Inspiring the next generation of space explorers

“They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonised it. So, technically, I colonised Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!” (Matt Damon in the 2015 film, The Martian)

By Jeremy Swan - 2 November 2016

Public enthusiasm for space exploration remains high, if popular culture is anything to go by. With films such as The Martian and Star Wars: The Force Awakens proving to be box office hits, there would seem to be a growing appetite ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’.

But the action hasn’t just been confined to the big screen. Excitement followed the news that Tim Peake had become Britain’s first official European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut in December 2015.

For the next generation of space explorers, the objective seems to be clear. Back in 2010, President Obama told an audience at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that he wanted to see humans on Mars “by the mid-2030s”.

With this aim in mind, there is a sense that we could be about to enter an exciting new chapter in space exploration. One in which we could all have a role to play, says Dr Ravi Margasahayam, who works as part of the Safety and Mission Assurance team at NASA:

“Space exploration in the 21st century is critical for advancing science and technology research and expanding human knowledge. Collaboration is, in some ways, the driving force these days. NASA collaborates with five space agencies, 16 partner countries and researchers around the world working together for the benefit of mankind. On the other hand, healthy competition between spacefaring nations encourages innovation.”

Britain’s own contribution is growing too, says Catherine Mealing-Jones, Director for Growth at the UK Space Agency:

“Britain has huge strengths in space exploration in areas such as physics, earth sciences and robotics. We have a lot to be proud of and a lot of expertise to build on.

“Currently, the space industry directly employs over 37,000 people (and indirectly many more), it contributes nearly £12 billion to the UK economy every year and it is growing at a consistently high rate of about 8%.

“The goal for the next decade is to move to a sector in the UK which is 10% of the global market, turning over about £40 billion per annum and directly employing 100,000 people all over the country.”

The East Midlands is well-placed to capitalise on growth in this sector, given its strengths in aerospace, engineering and advanced manufacturing. However, at present, the sector is overwhelmingly concentrated in London, the south-east and the east of England. Between them, these regions account for 95% of the turnover and 60% of the employment in the sector according to a report (PDF).

So how can the East Midlands benefit from this growth? There is plenty of scope for development, Catherine says:

“Although a lot of the focus is on the space element – the manufacturing of spacecraft for example – our analysis shows that most of the economic growth in the future will come from the provision of downstream services and applications which use space.

“Our job [in the UK Space Agency] is to switch people all over the country onto the idea that they can benefit from the growth opportunity that the sector provides. We’re not just targeting space companies, we’re interested in diverse sectors, including logistics, agritech, maritime and retail.”

Mobilising industry is one thing, but how can we encourage the next generation to consider a career in the space sector?

The solution, according to Dr Margasahayam, is simple: “All young people have natural vision, curiosity and creativity. We need to encourage it, not limit it. As a society, we need to inspire our students to become the next generation of scientists and engineers. Engineers bring science to life by creating practical, real-world things, such as cars, planes and cell phones. In many ways, they can be considered the ‘architects’ of the modern world.”

Catherine agrees: “There is a huge need to attract young people into STEM-based careers of all kinds, so we have put a lot of effort into maximising the ‘inspirational effect’ of space on the next generation. Providing good role models is also very important. I would add that space has the potential to inspire careers of all kinds, such as writing, broadcasting or designing computer games.”

Anthony Southwell, from Derby and District Astronomical Society, argues that we should adopt a broader approach: “The young are the future but we mustn’t forget to inspire the current generation of adults. They have the ears of the policy makers.”

And how can we begin?

“Just look up”, says Anthony.

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About the author

Jeremy Swan
External Relations Officer

Jeremy is a former External Relations Officer at the University of Derby and a regular contributor to the award-winning University Magazine.