Not long after reading through Pierre-Damien's recent post on ways for people, especially students, to get involved in lunar exploration, I clicked over the check out the most recent edition of the Space Review. I'll admit that after the excited, optimistic tone of Pierre-Damien's piece, the headline "Student satellites: encouraging trend or a sign of panic?" grabbed my eye.
I don't really see a whole lot of the panic the headline promises, but what I do see is people finally moving to combat a long mentioned, relatively well understood, extremely important set of problems: the problems that surround the simultaneous need to encourage more young people to pursue science and engineering professions and for those young people to be better prepared and better utilized once they enter the workforce.
My colleagues on a National Research Council committee and I touched on these issues in a report entitled "Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration." Now, I was definitely the rookie on that panel (my coworkers were very impressive and pleasant people), but one piece I made sure was included in the final report was the necessity of finding innovative ways to get students involved in interesting, hands-on missions wherein the students play critical lead roles, rather than minor parts. In my opinion, this is a great way to tackle both of those problems simultaneously: the existence of a cool, fun, student-lead project helps recruit interested students into STEM related disciplines, and the experience they earn from running the projects helps make the students more useful to the industry upon graduating.
This train of thought ended up being captured in 3 of the 6 recommendations included in that report:
Recommendation 4: Provide hands-on training opportunities for NASA workers. The committee recommends that NASA place a high priority on recruiting, training, and retaining skilled program and project managers and systems engineers and that it provide the hands-on training and development opportunities for younger and junior personnel required to establish and maintain the necessary capabilities in these disciplines. ...
Recommendation 5: Support university programs and provide hands-on opportunities at the college level. The committee recommends that NASA make workforce-related programs such as the Graduate Student Researchers Program and co-op programs a high priority within its education budget. NASA should also invest in the future workforce by partnering with universities to provide hands on experiences for students and opportunities for fundamental scientific and engineering research
specific to NASA’s needs. These experiences should include significant numbers of opportunities to participate in all aspects of suborbital and Explorer-class flight programs and in research fellowships and co-op student assignments. ...
Recommendation 6: Support involvement in suborbital programs and nontraditional approaches to developing skills. The committee recommends that NASA increase its investment in proven programs such as sounding rocket launches, aircraft-based research, and high-altitude balloon campaigns, which provide ample opportunities for hands-on flight development experience at a relatively low cost of failure. ... In addition, NASA should take advantage of nontraditional institutions and approaches both to inspire and to train potential future employees. Investment in programs such as Centennial Challenge prizes and other innovative methods has the potential to pay benefits many times greater than their cost, by simultaneously increasing NASA’s public visibility, training a new generation of workers, and pushing the technology envelope.
I think programs like the American Student Moon Orbiter (ASMO) and the European SMO are fantastic implementations of these recommendations (and similar recommendations from other groups, et cetera), worthy of support from industry as a whole.