Apollo inspired generations, including people who are now the explorers working to take us back to the Moon, on to Mars and beyond. They are designing vehicles, planning for challenges and charting major milestones. Their work is taking space exploration to new heights. But who will actually put new footprints on the Moon and take the first step on Mars? Who will take us beyond that goal? Who is responsible for the future of space exploration? Students. Today’s students are that future—and it is our job to inspire them and help them see themselves as those leaders.
At the Challenger Center, we inspire more than 250,000 students from around the globe every year. They are transported to space when they come to our centers. They become science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals leading futuristic missions. During one simulation called Expedition Mars, we set the stage by telling the students a handful of facilities are established on Mars and that a shuttle ferries them between a base on the moon Phobos and the Martian surface. To these students, this is not hard to imagine. It is not a dreamworld or something from a storybook. Setting foot on Mars, going back to the Moon and exploring beyond is not just an idea; it is their reality.
Today’s students have a “no limits, anything is possible” mindset—the type needed for space exploration. They have an indomitable spirit and are less risk-averse than any previous generation. While adults talk about technology as a thing, students simply experience it as part of their lives. They are digital natives who expect technology to expand and evolve. Students are growing up in a world with experiences that would have been impossible a decade ago—and unimaginable before that. This mindset and adaptability are traits that could transform the space industry in the next 20, 30 or 40 years. It is our role to help equip students with the necessary skills and provide inspirational experiences that lead them down the path to pursue STEM careers.
Complex issues such as space exploration require communication and collaboration skills. Every industry, especially the space industry, needs talented individuals who can work together on a unified goal. But how do we show today’s students the importance of these 21st-century skills? How do we prepare them to be collaborative problem solvers? At the Challenger Center, we provide visiting students with an experience that demands those qualities, and without hesitation, the students work together to complete tasks and reach their goals. If you put them in a situation where these skills are required, they understand why it is important and witness positive effects as a result.
The Challenger Center has sent more than 5 million students on virtual space missions over the last 30 years. We give students around the world the chance to play a part in reaching a collective goal, to feel the anxiety of the risks, understand the impact of their decisions and enjoy the satisfaction of success.
I know this happens because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve watched students arrive uninterested and disengaged, silent and intimidated. When they realize their classmates are counting on them, I see a shift. They work hard to complete their tasks and help their teammates. When the mission is complete, they high-five their teachers before walking out the door with confidence and a can-do attitude. I know these moments happen because I hear from former students who are now young professionals working on incredible programs such as’s Orion and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon.
Space exploration, by virtue of its visionary perspectives and necessarily lengthy project timelines, is one of the few ventures that so heavily relies on the next generation. Knowing this also means understanding how critical it is to have a talented and motivated future workforce.
From volunteering and mentoring to supporting STEM programs, I challenge everyone in the space community to consider how, in your own way, you can inspire the next generation. Today’s students have the mindset to transform the future of space exploration into something we cannot even imagine. Let’s be role models and work together to inspire them to take on that challenge, just as Apollo inspired us.
Lance Bush is president and CEO of the Challenger Center, a nonprofit formed by the families of the crewmembers who perished when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart.