New discoveries about the universe will eventually teach us how to migrate to other planets, even other solar systems – but increasingly, space scientists and engineers need interdisciplinary training to deal with complex ethical, financial, legal and business issues
Space science and technology were strategic issues in the 1950s and 1960s and covered under a veil of discretion and even secrecy. To put the first person in space and the first human on the moon were political goals. The space race was funded by government budgets with high priority. Only later did the private sector obtain access to the necessary technology and soon afterwards, commercial operators started to build their own satellites, initially for telecommunication.
Since then a shift has continued whereby space technologies are routinely and commercially used for many applications that even visionary scientists would have had doubts about a few decades ago. Indeed, space tourism and even the robotic competition on the moon, now ongoing, would have been hard to imagine as viable business models.
Although the main space agencies have made remarkable efforts through spin-off programmes, the free market approach has further facilitated the transfer of space technologies to other sectors beyond the space sector. Moreover, space has become a utility nowadays. Imagine one day without any space data, and considering how many applications are dependent not only on telecommunications but also on accurate timing and positioning via navigation systems, it is easy to imagine that the world economy would come to a sudden halt. Also, our security and defence are more and more dependent on data from space-based assets. One needs only think about drones that require considerable broadband capacity.
This change is also reflected in the increasing complexity of jobs in the space sector. Whereas under the governmental programmes of a few decades ago only a relatively few people had to deal with funding, financing of space projects has now become a much more complex issue that, even more importantly, is now an integral part of the daily activities of each manager in the space sector. If opting for a scientific management career or for a more technological one, no space professional can make such a career without good knowledge of both governmental, budget driven, financing as well as private financing.
This requires not only effectively communicating with fellow scientists or engineers, but also with bankers, venture capitalists and other financiers, which requires understanding their specific language. Efficient communication can only take place if both the sender and the receiver are tuned to the same frequency, and same is valid for inter-professional communication.
A similar parallel can be drawn regarding contracting. In order to proceed rapidly during the early years of space technology development, many direct negotiations took place. Under the present financial constraints, open competition is more and more applied, which in turn requires specific skills to write winning proposals in response to detailed requests. Furthermore, these skills are not particularly a part of classical curricula but need to be acquired by any scientific or technical manager, even those working in academic environments.
The International Space University, for example, brings space experts and young professionals together forming international and interdisciplinary teams to practice this type of skills training and communication during the course of study. A recent survey showed that 80 per cent of the ISU's 3,200 alumni are working in the space sector and are making careers in this sector on the basis of their interdisciplinary training.
It is important that future generations of space scientists are given a broader perspective and vision on space science and technology, irrespective of his or her background. In addition to the classical technical disciplines, young space scientists should be provided with basic knowledge in space law, policy, management and business skills, but also with societal and even philosophical aspects of space exploration.
Contrary to many other traditional sectors, the space sector is still in a transient state. We discover new aspects of the universe daily, and this knowledge will eventually teach us how to migrate to other planets, probably even to other solar systems. With each step a number of essential, also ethical, questions must be answered. It is therefore important to create a new generation of scientists and engineers that have the background knowledge, over and above their technical and scientific knowledge, to appreciate these new evolutionary steps and are prepared to deal with the unknown in a wise and sustainable manner.
If we are to provide the different components of the space sector with 'The Right Stuff', we must be constantly ready to adapt. Space science institutions must remain flexible if they are to reflect the needs of their sector in terms of qualified, interdisciplinary space professionals. Professor Walter Peeters is president of the International Space University. This article first appeared on PublicServiceEurope.com's sister site Science Omega: The changing face of space science