Thursday, December 28, 2006

How To Appeal To Youth

To the dismay of space enthusiasts, recent studies have shown that young people tend to be more indifferent or even opposed to manned space exploration, even compared to older people. Young people were not as supportive of the new vision for space as older people were. This is an alarming trend, and NASA is working to reverse youth apathy towards space. Among their findings:
Even though the Dittmar surveys offer a bleak view, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin believes ventures to the moon and Mars will excite young people more than the current shuttle trips to low-Earth orbit.

“If we make it clear that the focus of the United States space program for the foreseeable future will be out there, will be beyond what we do now, I think you won't have any problem at all reacquiring the interest of young people,'' Griffin said in a recent interview.

Tactics encouraged by the workshop included new forms of communication, such podcasts and YouTube; enlisting support from celebrities, such as actors David Duchovny (“X-Files'') and Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek: The Next Generation''); forming partnerships with youth-oriented media such as MTV or sports events such as the Olympics and NASCAR; and developing brand placement in the movie industry.

Outside groups have offered ideas too, such as making it a priority to shape the right message about the next-generation Orion missions.

And NASA should take a hint from Hollywood, some suggested.

“The American public engages with issues through people, personalities, celebrities, whatever,'' said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a space advocacy group. “When you don't have that kind of personality, or face, or faces associated with your issue, it's a little bit harder for the public to connect.''

He said the agency could pick the crews for the moon and Mars trips earlier so the public can connect the faces with the far-off missions of the future.

“You can take advantage of these personalities and these stories about triumph over adversity to create heroes, if you will,'' said workshop leader Peggy Finarelli, a former NASA official who is now a researcher at George Mason University.
I belong to the 18-25 year old demographic, and I disagree with much of what is stated in the article. Using celebrities, Google Video, and YouTube will not cut it, IMO. Just because celebrities are endorsing space travel will not automatically make it click among youth. I don't remember the announcement that Lance Bass was trying to pay for a spaceflight rousing interest in young people for going to Mars. Also, a trip to space at the time costs millions, and would likely be seen among many young people as a "playground for the filthy rich." The reasons for the lack of interest are much deeper.

Consider this: the Boomers grew up with space being something very new. As humans had never left the atmosphere, the fact that men were now orbiting Earth, and later walking on Luna were very profound events. For the first time in history, people were able to look at photographs of the Earth as a blue/green sphere. Also during that time, there was much vision of a future of Mars and Lunar colonies, and people living and working in space. Even the Xers, born in the 1960s and 1970s, were around to see the major milestones, from Apollo, to Skylab, to the STS, and to the Challenger explosion. Space was still relatively new, and the theme of the era was making space travel routine. But of course, we know where that went.

Now, let's get to the Millennial generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s. It is rare to find a Millennial, born even in the early 1980s, who can remember the Challenger disaster. Shuttle flights every few months is something that we've been accustomed to all of our lives. There has not been much happening in space that would excite Millennials. Yeah, every several months, we launch about 3 - 7 people on the space shuttle just to travel a few hundred miles above the Earth's surface. The shuttle can't even make it to Geostationary Orbit, much less Luna. Many of us have been hearing about NASA plans to build a space station "Freedom", "Alpha", or "ISS". And look at where we are today. ISS is a total clusterf--k (excuse my French) of a project. Today, you can't really do anything exciting there. So why should we be excited about NASA starting a moon base? With the record of NASA since the cancellation of Apollo, why should we become interested in a vision that will probably not live up to the hype? If you were a space enthusiast, you might wonder whether we have anti-space people working at NASA.

Also, there is plenty of anti-space rhetoric going around. What is the logic of spending billions of dollars to send a couple of people into space when there are still people in poverty everywhere? Earlier this year, Katie Couric reflected a sentiment expressed by Jesse Jackson shortly after the manned Lunar langings, when she said "I can't help but wonder what all that money could do for people here on planet Earth". I mean, the Earth is warming. The polar ice caps are melting and sea levels will rise. AIDS is devastating much of the world, as are other plagues such as malaria. Billions have no access to clean water and find hardship even in obtaining food. Even in America, there are many impoverished people. So why spend billions of dollars on sending a few people into space every few months, when that money could be used to alleviate hunger here at home? That's a very convincing argument.

But us space enthusiasts know better. We know that space has the potential to help solve the problems we have here on Earth. But is this ever communicated to the public? I have never read anywhere outside a space-themed book or website about how space can be used to solve problems here on Earth. I have never heard, or heard of, anyone saying in public that space offers the opportunity for wealth beyond our wildest dreams, the opportunity for a much better environment, or the opportunity to solve our energy-shortage problems. Never. Is the media just blocking out these messages, or are the space enthusiasts not working hard enough to get the message out? We are constantly bombarded with messages of an impending energy crisis, that fossil fuels are running out and there is no known energy source able to provide the amount of energy that fossil fuels provides. When alternatives are spoken of, either it is terrestrial solar power or hydrogen. A lot of people would be astounded to learn that we've already found a solution to this crisis, and have known of it since the 1970s. Why is it that space solar power, lunar solar power, or even helium-3 (which is understandable since we don't even have fusion reactors yet) never get mentioned as viable alternatives, even though they provide the opportunity to provide surplus energy for more than 10 billion people? OTECs are also able to power the world, but this is never mentioned either.

If the 2004 and 2006 elections have proven one thing, it is that the Millennials tend to lean on the leftist/liberal side of the ideological spectrum. I myself am a liberal, and a leftist. As a result, space has to connect with the issues that concern left-wing politics. And given the benefits that space can offer, this should be the easiest thing in the world. Until we connect with the general public on how space can tackle our most dire problems here on Earth, we will have a hard time convincing people that space is worth the money. How many people even browse the science section of the bookstore? Many people will steer clear from it. Only a small fraction of the population has even heard of the books The Millennial Project, Mining the Sky, or The Case For Mars. It was books like these that turned me into a space enthusiast. And where is the vision for space? There is actually plenty of vision, but that vision is inaccessible to most people. John S. Lewis -- author of Mining The Sky -- decried the "lack of visionary leadership in recent years". Today, you don't see much of a future about space. Sure, we have Battlestar Galactica, but that does not present an inspiring vision of a space faring future. If you want to draw in a new generation, you have to inspire them. You have to connect space with their hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a better world and a better life for themselves. For some, this might mean mining materials on the Lunar surface and then fabricating the material into solar panels in orbit or on Luna that can provide unlimited energy for all. For others, it might mean power cheap and plentiful enough so that even an impoverished village in Ghana can improve their living conditions.

Another thing is that there needs to be more space related jobs. Those of us who are nerds and geeks will find much more opportunity creating software than working for NASA. There needs to be more employment in the space industry, and there needs to be a chance that they could go into space.
Interest in "New Space" (commercial) human spaceflight efforts such as the X-Prize flights of SpaceShip One is increasing, relative to the results of the previous study.
Efforts like this connect the youth to a possible space future. And if there are companies offering space flights, this means that one could potentially get a job engineering and constructing space vehicles and space infrastructure. And if the prices drop and more people have access to space, then the youth will become more interested. So the issue with space is that there is not enough communication to the masses about what a space faring future could entail for us. We need to get that message across. We need to tell everyone that we can solve our energy crisis by embarking on space travel. We need to let people know that the resources in space are practically infinite. And we need to let people know that space gives us an opportunity to return Earth to its natural beauty and splendor. We also need to, at every point, counter-act any message that states that space is useless. Next time Katie Couric or someone else talks publicly about the need to turn away from space, we as a community need to fill up their (e)mail boxes and voicemails with the truth. We much not allow anyone to spread ignorance about space without a hard fight.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:07 PM

    It is all too true that the rising generations do not appreciate space exploration the way it should be appreciated.

    A friend of mine started a petition a while back to raise interest in space exploration. I support his cause and invite other space enthusiasts to do the same thing. It is a national petition to raise interest in space exploration. You can read the petition at Personally, I think it is a great cause... so if you agree, feel free to show your support! If not, no harm done :)