How does the U.S. stack up in second space race?

The world is in the midst of its second space race.

The driving force of this new space race is multi-faceted and complex. While space may still feel distant, the reality is that it touches our lives daily, from the televisions we watch, to the GPS in our cars, to the ATMs at the bank. The boundless appetite for reliable real-time communications across the world isn’t going to decline any time soon.

In this new space race, however, the moon will not be the goal, but instead a stepping stone to a new frontier. In the past, space travel was narrowly dominated by a few large corporations, government agencies and the men and women of our astronaut corps. Today, thanks to a new generation of space entrepreneurs, commercial spaceflight and the promise of space tourism, space is open to a much wider span of the human population.

There is no telling how all this will play out. What is certain is that the second race to space is rapidly accelerating, and a wide variety of players are getting ready for it.

While in Dubai last fall, I learned about significant investments and commitments the United Arab Emirates government has made in standing up a native space capability. The UAE Space Agency, just recently formed, is committed to sending an unmanned probe called Hope to Mars by 2021. To complete this mission, the UAE is emphasizing international cooperation and the importance of science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) education in its own schools and universities.

In the U.S., to maintain our place as a leader in space exploration and the development of technology and capability, we must continue to invest in our most valuable resource — today’s elementary, high school and college students. They are tomorrow’s space designers and travelers.

If we don’t invest and drive change, the consequences could be severe. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, in the next 10 years, roughly 30 percent of its civilian engineering workforce will become eligible for retirement, taking with them decades of experience. Outside the DoD, research presented in the 2014 Business Roundtable report found a similar trend — more than half of the CEOs surveyed cited a lack of STEM skills in the workforce as a “significant problem” for their companies.

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ET-94, NASA’s last remaining flight-qualified space shuttle external tank, being towed through Los Angeles on May 21. Credit: NASA / JPL

A STEM related event in Los Angeles in May brought a massive fuel tank, the only remaining flight-qualified external tank in the world called ET-94, to the California Science Center’s new Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center. Much like the Space Shuttle Endeavour orbiter, the tank  — the length of four school buses lined up end to end — traveled the streets of the city on its way to its new home.

The California Science Center has seen more than 2.5 million visitors annually, up 50 percent since the Endeavour’s arrival, which is an indicator that our nation is still intrigued and inspired by the mysteries and adventures that space provides. Children will soon be able to visit the Endeavour exhibit in its “full stack” display and potentially be even more motivated to study engineering. It was the space program that inspired my own education and career decisions.

One thing all of us in the aerospace industry can agree on is that we need to keep our next generation focused on the value and rewards of a career in STEM-related fields. Only with their interest, involvement and effort can we successfully compete in this current space race.

Rick Yuse

Rick Yuse

Rick Yuse is the president of Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems business and served as the co-chair of the California Science Center’s 2016 Discovery Ball, which welcomed the last remaining flight-qualified external tank to Los Angeles in May.