Zaheer Ali

If we look back even just 100 years, how many wars or global conflicts could have been avoided if world leaders were able to pick up the phone and communicate immediately? Many – the first and second World Wars, the Cold War, Red China, and many others. 

Over the last century, people have dedicated their lives to improving the quality and speed of communication so that you and I can communicate instantly with people all over the world – something most of us probably take for granted. Instant communication has enabled us to avoid conflicts and disseminate critical information across the globe.

Space breaks that. 

Communication in the space sector is not as fast. There is a 1.25 second delay to the moon, 5-minute delay to Mars, and 12-minute delay to the asteroid belt. Imagine a 1.25 second delay on your steering wheel – that could mean the difference between life and death. The same is true in space. 

Apollo 13 is one example. Not only did they have a communications blackout on the far side of the moon, but they were experiencing an active crisis while dealing with this communication delay. Thankfully, the Apollo 13 crew was able to complete the mission and return safely to Earth, but that’s not always the case. You might be thinking, “that was 1970, surely things are different now?” Yes and no. The technology we have today is far more advanced than that of the 1970s – and it’s still improving – but the speed at which we can communicate through space has not changed much. 

Communication delays put in-space workers at risk and make it challenging to complete certain tasks in space. While we cannot change the speed of light, we can utilize advancing technologies and change how we educate and train people, and how teams operate and communicate. 

Space as a vertical and a horizontal 

Today, space is a $365 billion-$424 billion industry. By 2040, it’s projected to be an over $2 trillion industry, according to an extensive report by Citigroup. To sustain that kind of growth, a lot needs to change. We are already seeing a dramatic shift from a government dominated to a commercial dominated space economy. According to the 

Space Foundation’s “The Space Report 2021 Q2”, in 2020 commercial space represented more than 80% of the space economy. 

As the space vertical continues to grow and evolve, it is also becoming a horizontal, meaning it will impact many other industries. The space vertical is going to pull other industries and technologies along because as space moves forward, it demands things from those industries, and they respond. 

Space is going to pull AI, autonomy, robotics, and advanced manufacturing. Relativity Space is actively working on sending robots with advanced manufacturing capabilities to Mars. They have found it’s feasible to use Martian regolith to 3D print massive concrete structures and then use robots to bolt the metal and plastic pieces. Using these technologies, we can effectively create an entire city before the first astronaut ever puts boots on Mars – increasing value and efficiency without compromising the health and safety of in-space workers. After all, we saw how the alternative worked out for Matt Damon.

When we think of space careers, we need to think beyond astronauts, engineers, technologists, and physicists. The space economy is expanding to include three career categories: 

  • In-space workforce includes people who work in space – astronauts, welders, technicians, media and communications workers, scientists, and engineers.
  • Space workforce includes people who work in the space industry but do not go into space – software developers, mission control, satellite engineers, and scientists.
  • General workforce of the future includes people in many other industries that support or are affected by the space economy – cybersecurity, health care, engineering, manufacturing, energy, hospitality, and construction.

If we want to create sustainable interplanetary success, prosperity, and equity, we need to inspire, educate, enlighten and of course, delight all the current and future participants in these three categories.  

We can’t change the speed of light, but we can prepare the space workforce 

Currently, to get on console for a satellite, one would need a minimum of a STEM bachelor's degree. For International Space Station (ISS) support or rover support, a person needs a STEM graduate degree. That’s not a sustainable model. In the coming years we will go from training 10 people every two to three years to training hundreds or thousands of people every year. 

Utilizing advancing technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will be critical in making that happen. AR and VR will enable people to experience going to space without ever leaving Earth’s atmosphere. Simulations will help people understand the in-space experience, so they have a frame of reference when creating new technologies or supporting in-space workers. Sort of like cross-cultural communication, they can gain cross-planetary understanding. These technologies will also be used to train the in-space workforce as well by using simulations in the metaverse. 

Space is not all technology, though. We need humans. That means leaders and teams need to operate differently. Teams need to be able to function more autonomously so that they can make decisions more quickly. When there’s already a communication delay, we can’t afford the time it takes to cut through red tape. Teams also need to work more cohesively, which will require a global mindset and cross-cultural skills. Additionally, people need to be cross trained with a deep and broad understanding of multiple disciplines. That is why Thunderbird is at the forefront of interplanetary innovation and education. 

Leveraging Thunderbird’s capabilities

Thunderbird has always been a leader in global business, leadership, and management education. A global mindset and cross cultural communication are Thunderbird’s bread and butter. But on top of that, Thunderbird has integrated innovation into everything it does. The new state-of-the-art Global Headquarters allows students to interact in multi-dimensional, immersive learning spaces and collaborate on a global scale. They’re doing many amazing things with Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. 

For instance, Glendale recently hosted Super Bowl LVII and Thunderbird, in collaboration with the city of Phoenix, presented "Phoenix: The Global City of the Future," an immersive technology-driven experience. My colleague Travis Cloyd, Global Futurist and Senior Fellow at Thunderbird and CEO of WorldwideXR (WXR), led the charge on creating a virtual scavenger hunt with AR experiences around downtown Phoenix. “Thunderbird equals innovation,” Cloyd said in a recent conversation. “The diversity of our students and faculty mirrors the diversity of the technology in our digital and physical campuses – volumetric technology, AI, metaverse, hardware and software testing, VR, media players, AR experiences. There are lots of diverse pathways.” This intersection of global business education and advanced technology provides a unique experience for people pursuing careers in the space economy. 

As technology continues to advance and the space economy evolves, space will be accessible for more and more people – through AR and VR simulations, video games, or space travel. I believe that all industries will eventually be affected or affect the space economy. It is critical that we continue to educate and prepare people for an interplanetary future. 

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