More than 250 young systems engineers, astrophysicists, defense contractors and aerospace consultants from across the nation and the world came to Colorado Springs and participated in the 32nd Space Symposium earlier this week.

Their mission was to build relationships, exchange thoughts with top space leaders and take back fresh ideas to their companies.

Throughout the week, space professionals under the age of 35 attended workshops, keynote sessions and speed mentoring and networking events at The Broadmoor hotel, part of the New Generation Space Leaders Program developed eight years ago by the Space Foundation.

“This program has allowed us to do some neat things, such as change the demographics of the symposium with young people and participants from other countries,” said Elliot Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation since 2001.

Events are added each year, and program participation has grown almost 30 percent since last year, according to Jillianne Pierce, government affairs associate at the Space Foundation.

“The program has helped young professionals get jobs and intertwine with the industry,” Pierce said. “I can see that there is a lot of futurism in this room.”

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Commercial growth

During speed mentoring on Monday, young professionals participated in round-table discussions with leaders from organizations such as Boeing, NASA, the United Kingdom Space Agency and U.S. Air Force.

One of the mentors was Chad Anderson, managing director of the Space Angels Network, a global company that invests in early-stage space companies. Since the industry is a few years into a new entrepreneurial approach to space, he said he was grateful to meet and answer questions from future leaders.

“Our organization is tuned into cool things like commercial companies launching people to commercial stations, developing commercial spacesuits, lunar transportation and developing infrastructure,” he said. “It’s all happening from startups and these young professionals are going to be doing that.”

Participants probed Anderson on what types of companies are being funded and what investors are looking for.

“A well-rounded management team and the market are key,” Anderson told the young professionals. “Have a solution to a real problem, go after a market that is big or growing and make sure you have a solution that people want.”

Also, in a high-tech industry, entrepreneurs need to have both a technical and business focus, he said.

“Have a prototype or demonstration to show not just investors but customers,” he said. “That way, customers can validate they want to buy the product, which validates that there is a market and then validates everything for the investor and company.”

New Generation takeaways

Kendall Ackerman, a communications professional for Ball Aerospace in Boulder, said she found the event to be valuable — an opportunity to interact with mentors who are passionate about who will fill their roles in the future.

“It gives you perspective on what you’re doing and how you can contribute, no matter what role you play,” she said. “It’s been refreshing to hear the mentors’ concerns and what they expect and see from the next generation.”

Ackerman said she also enjoyed the opportunity to connect more deeply with other professionals at her company.

“There are several here from Ball who I know their names, but don’t know them well,” she said. “I appreciate the opportunity to hear more on what they do for the company and establish more connections within the company.”

Romano Romani, an account executive for Red Hat Inc., said he’s interested in how the next phase of space will pan out.

“I think something major is going to break in the next 20 years, but I’m not sure in what area,” he said. “In some ways there is a glass ceiling, but I think whatever takes off will be a major catalyst for the future. Asteroid mining would be interesting.”

Future of space

More nations are seeing the benefits of space for their economies, industry and technological education development, said Micah Walter-Range, director of research and analysis for the Space Foundation during the inaugural New Generation kickoff session.

“Should we set up crews on the moon or Mars?” he asked. “People have different ideas, and there isn’t really a consensus. People are going to go somewhere at some point and I think Mars is going to be one of those choices.”

Because no one has ever visited the cold, terrestrial planet, developments still need to cover habitats and transportation, communication networks and remote sensing, he said.

And biotechnology should be on the radar.

“From the next generation of leaders, we need more with a biology background,” he said. “Because space really isn’t good for humans. It does terrible things to your body as we’ve seen from research on astronauts. Effects include impaired vision, being more prone to infection in space, having terrible mobility and your skeleton just kind of rots. Re-engineering the human race might have to be a consideration for humans to actually survive somewhere other than earth for a substantial amount of time.”

Walter-Range also said roughly 20 percent of NASA’s civil service members are eligible for retirement.

“Which means for those of you working at space agencies, there may be some openings at NASA soon,” he said, “and it could be your turn.”