Space congress draws a young crowd
There were a lot of fresh faces at the International Astronautical Congress this year—more than 500, to be a little more precise—all students enrolled in courses of study that potentially could help them find their way into the space industry. Meeting in Naples, Italy, the 63rd IAC attracted a younger crowd than in past years, with fully one-third of the almost 4,000 participants under the age of 35.
Naples is the youngest city in Europe, according to its mayor, Luigi De Magistris, who stresses the importance of the aerospace industry in employing the generation just graduating from universities.
“The development of this field will pave the way for job opportunities,” De Magistris told the opening session of the Congress, which included a large cadre of young temporary workers hired to help with the nuts and bolts of the international gathering. Many of them have university degrees and excellent skills in multiple languages, but they can't find jobs and often live with their parents while sending resumes all over the European Union to no avail.
There are some 10,000 aerospace jobs in the region around Naples, a quarter of the national total. The region's five universities have 23 courses of study to serve the industry. That, and the effort that went into luring the IAC to Naples and organizing it once the Paris-based International Astronautical Federation (IAF) chose the city, show the importance Italy places on the space industry for its rising generation.
With the engineers and scientists who launched the space age well into retirement, and the generation that flew the space shuttle to build the International Space Station (ISS) rapidly getting there, the IAF and its sister organizations have mounted a serious effort over the past few years to attract new blood.
“Several years ago, the space agencies began to organize an international student zone,” says Lyn Wigbels, a retiredofficial who is IAF vice president for youth and workforce development activities. “They all fund students to come to the IAC, and they all have a very competitive process where [the students] have to submit abstracts and compete.”
Students selected to attend the congress present their papers in the technical sessions, and they have a great opportunity to network—one of the main functions of the event. They also have a chance to speak to agency heads and other senior space personnel, and present their concerns about the direction the world's space programs are taking (see photo).
The IAF runs programs for “young professionals” just getting started in the industry, as well, to help them find their way into the broader international space community. “We bring in senior people and interact and talk with the young professionals,” Wigbels says. “It's given them an opportunity to meet each other at these conferences, but also to have this special time with some of the senior people.”
That special time extends to a “speed-mentoring” event, where students meet space luminaries one-on-one. The whole idea, says Wigbels, is to “give them opportunities to become involved in the organization, to meet senior people, to have that mentoring, and also to hear from them.”
For that, the IAF has organized “next-generation plenaries” with youthful panelists. Topics have included space operations and Earth-observation, and this year will focus on the use of social media to advance space exploration and utilization.
The international push to interest young people in space work is matched at the national level, where space agencies are giving talented youth a chance to do real science and engineering in space. Among many programs,is helping support the use of cubesats as teaching tools in engineering schools by providing piggyback launches to the tiny spacecraft and awarding serious money for advanced cubesat development with real missions (AW&ST Aug. 20, p. 31).
The European Space Agency, too, has worked to support “the next generation of engineers,” in the words of Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain. The first flight of the new Vega rocket carried seven piggyback cubesats built by students, and senior managers like Dordain take an active role in the youth programs at the IAC, offering their insights and listening to criticism.
“We need you, so that we can retire,” the ESA chief joked to one of the student gatherings he attended in Naples.