In the decades ahead, NASA's long-term strategy for exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond will require sustained support to some degree from Generation Y, a group now roughly 18 to 25 years old.
What it will take to sustain that support is a topic NASA and its supporters are already thinking about. Far more global in their perspective, Generation Y is Internet savvy and armed with powerful communication tools from instant messaging, blogging and networked gaming to YouTube video sharing, social Web site participation and virtual problem solving.
There is a logical question that has to be asked, George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a space advocacy group in Washington, said during a panel discussion on the topic at the 3rd Space Exploration Conference and Exhibit last month.
"As we embark on, arguably, a two decades or more program, will the younger generation both support this as we go forward ... and will the workers be there to carry that program out over the coming years?" The event was hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in collaboration with NASA.
Over the course of the last several years, Dittmar Associates Inc. of Houston carried out field research, surveys and polls designed to assess public perceptions of NASA and its current space exploration objectives. The research was used extensively in the development of NASA's strategic communications framework, said Mary Lynne Dittmar, the company's president and chief executive officer.
These appraisals are admittedly snapshots in time, said Dittmar, but there are trends that stand out. While the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers have a "cool" factor, Generation Y is fairly disengaged from the space program and does not view it as part of what they do.
"When you start drilling down and asking follow-up questions, they really just don't know much about what NASA does," Dittmar explained. "This generation is saying it wants more interaction ... real-time, or near real-time insight into what's going on with the mission and an ability to interact with other people, and possibly interact with the robots."
Generation Y lives on the Internet where geographical boundaries have no meaning. "Therefore, why should that distance between here and the moon have any meaning? It's just another place," she said.
"The traditional concept of top-down, one-way communication strategy is dead. It's not dying ... it is dead," said Kristen Painting, an international space station systems instructor at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The lines are blurred on exactly where generations begin and end, Painting said, but the estimated 70 million U.S. citizens between eight and 31 could be categorized as Generation Y.
"We're here and ready to make an impact just like the baby boomers did," Painting added. "We do expect to work anytime, anyplace. We're comfortable with globalization ... We'd like to see NASA like we are — collaborative, creative, open, timely, bold, innovative, connected, participatory, exciting and purposeful. But we want to be involved."
Delia Santiago, NASA CoLab program coordinator at Ames Research Center in California said "getting people involved and contributing to something on their own time can lead to real content."
The CoLab has pioneered the use of SecondLife — an online digital world, built, shaped and owned by its participants. It is a tool to enhance involvement in space projects by individuals inside and outside the NASA community. Other interactive projects are being evolved at the center too, Santiago said. "Not engaging people ... that's a lost opportunity ... We're about content generation. We're about innovative use of what technologies build community."
The NASA CoLab is not using technology just because it is trendy. It is about what you can get by utilizing that technology, she said. "It is interesting that 'inreach' gets a misspelling underline while 'outreach' does not."
Alexander Stimpson, a first-year graduate student at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said it is critical NASA engage Generation Y. There's a need to inform younger audiences that "space and space exploration isn't something that happened 40 years ago ... it is still an ongoing process and something that they can get involved in."
Stimpson said more internships, grants and training programs are needed to create the next generation of space inventors, scientists and astronauts.
"It is clear that the work force and students of this generation have injected much needed enthusiasm, innovation and energy into discussions on the future of space," said Alan Ladwig, a consultant at WBB Consulting, Reston, Va. "It's especially encouraging to see young engineers and scientists appreciate the value of effective communication ... a vital component that has been an afterthought for many space professionals."