Young people are shaking up the world. Climate activist Greta Thunberg is an example of giving a voice to new generation, as she hopes to enable positive change when fighting climate change. It is only natural that young people will have equally ambitious plans to revolutionize the space industry. Here we talk to some Millennials and Generation Z people already making an impact in this industry and look at how they see the future.
Ufuoma Ovienmhada is 22 years old and a second year Master’s student in the Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. In her general coursework, she studies space systems, numerical modelling techniques, and geographic information systems.
When asked about choosing the space industry, Ovienmhada says, “I felt like with other industries around the cell phone, the car, or social media — the impact of those technologies have already been felt on the world. On the other hand, I felt like the world-changing impact of the space industry was still yet to be determined and I could truly have a role.”
In her Masters thesis work, Ovienmhada applies satellite Earth Observation (EO) data to monitor the proliferation of an invasive plant species, called the water hyacinth, that was introduced into West Africa during the colonial period. She says the introduction of the water hyacinth has resulted in many negative economic and medical consequences for the region and the plant’s growth and harmful impacts will only be aggravated by climate change.
“I believe that by harnessing EO and principles from community-centered design, our team can create a tool powered by space technology that empowers humans with more information to make decisions about how to sustainably interact and manage their lived environment. Space technology, when designed in close collaboration with the important stakeholders, will definitely have a role in tackling issues in human-environmental systems all around the world,” she says.
Ovienmhada says her Utopian vision for a space-based society is one in which humans are encouraged to rethink all of the systems and ways of doing that we’ve created on Earth; and to eradicate the measures that we’ve used to define power and hierarchies on earth. She says the optimist in her wants to see humanity use space exploration to design new societal forms and norms that we haven’t even conceptualized yet.
“For example, what if there are political ideals and value systems beyond the limited spectrum of polarized options that exist on Earth? What if there are alternate ways of learning that go beyond the lecture style commonly used in many educational systems on Earth? Can we design more nuanced performance metrics than the commonly used ‘GDP’ to measure the success of a nation? What if nation-states did not exist anymore?” she says. “Space exploration and interplanetary habitation presents a unique opportunity for humanity to unlearn and learn again. I hope that the people leading the space-based societies seize the opportunity when the time comes.”
As the world has seen with the climate strikes and other political activism in the United States and around the world, Ovienmhada believes Millennials and Gen Z are very engaged in protecting the livelihoods and futures of marginalized identities and communities. “This boundless empathy and solidary across differences that young people have displayed are excellent characteristics to bring to the table in the space industry as we design space-based societies,” she adds.
In terms of challenges facing the industry, Ovienmhada says technology development in the space industry is moving quickly and she is fearful that technology will outpace the consideration of the design of social and political systems that will contain and operate these technologies. She adds what while she can clearly see the applications and benefits of space technology, sometimes she finds it disconcerting how much capital is required to operate the industry.
However, the future is exciting. “Today, we are at a point in society where technology is advancing so quickly that many science fiction futures feel within reach. It is exciting to work in the space industry as a young person today because I feel like, unlike in prior generations, the technological advances we make in the next few years/decades will likely enable large populations of humans, not just the most physically and intellectually elite among us, to experience space exploration,” she says. VS