By Kristen Mitchell
Earlier this month, billionaire Richard Branson and five crewmates briefly launched into suborbital space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo—a significant milestone on the path to commercial space exploration that highlights what can be accomplished through private and public cooperation, experts say.
“For anybody who’s out there trying something that people think can’t be done, don’t be discouraged,” said Lori Garver, M.A. ’89, CEO of Earthrise and former NASA official in President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama’s administrations, during a GW bicentennial event on Tuesday.
“People have dreamed about things that are now happening.”
The virtual event, titled “Celebrating 200 Years: GW on the Pulse of Space and Technology,” brought together four alumni leaders to discuss how their GW experiences shaped their futures in the space and technology sector. The event also featured Anousheh Ansari, M.S. ’92, CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation and the first Iranian-American and first female Muslim to go to space, and Ya-Qin Zhang, D.Sc. ’90, chair, professor and dean of the Institute for AI Industry Research at Tsinghua University and former president of the Internet company Baidu. The discussion was moderated by Kei Koizumi, M.A. ’95, chief of staff for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The event was sponsored by the GW Alumni Association.
Space technology development stagnated in the decades following the Apollo missions of the 1960s and early 1970s. Recent years have aligned three critical components—technological development, new sources of capital and policies to make space exploration accessible to more people, Ms. Garver said. With these components in place, she said, there is no limit to what humans have the capacity to do.
Dr. Ansari, a recipient of GW’s inaugural Monumental Alumni Award, said the gains made through recent investments in space technology and increased collaboration between government and the private sector are only the tip of the iceberg in what humanity stands to gain.
“I’m so excited about the knowledge we’re gaining about our own planet and how we are making use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to learn more and predict more,” she said. “Ultimately, the best benefit we can get from all the work is if we collaborate and combine all this knowledge together.”
In the early days of the internet revolution, no one had any idea what new technology would be discovered and how it would change the world. Dr. Ansari anticipates a similar arc for space technology and the new companies and research on the horizon.
GW’s world-renowned faculty, students and alumni have built a rich legacy at the forefront of science, technology and space exploration. Members of the GW community have contributed to revolutionary Big Bang Theory research, served as NASA’s first female spacecraft project manager and the growth of countless cutting-edge innovations.
Mr. Koizumi came to GW with the goal of becoming a foreign service officer but ultimately decided to join GW’s science and technology policy program. As a student, he once visited the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he would later work during two presidential administrations.
Today, Mr. Koizumi teaches the cornerstone course for science and technology, a class he said changed his life during his GW education.
“GW gave me this wonderful opportunity to learn, but then also to give it back to the students and to be refreshed with that knowledge as I’ve gone through my career,” he said.
Ms. Garver described being inspired by guest speakers who came to talk with students about their careers in space policy while she pursued her graduate degree at GW. She recalled a particularly impactful “Only at GW” visit from a woman who led policy and international affairs at NASA—the pinnacle of the career she wanted for herself.
“There were a lot of people who came in from jobs where we could envision ourselves,” Ms. Garver said.
The panelists offered advice to the next generation of GW students interested in space and technology. Dr. Zhang, a recipient of GW’s inaugural Monumental Alumni Award, encouraged students to cultivate their own fresh, unique perspectives on how to address challenges in the industry. School helps individuals build a strong foundation in the field, but education doesn’t stop on graduation day.
“With the fast-changing technology, most of what you learned five years ago is probably irrelevant,” he said. “The most valuable skill is the ability to learn new things.”
Dr. Ansari highlighted the importance of cross disciplinary collaboration. Solving complex problems requires a multifaceted approach. Knowing a subject deeply is commendable, but students and university program leaders would be wise to operate with a wider lens to add the most value to the work that will need to be done, she said.
“If we learned one thing about the past 18 months, it is that we need to expect anything,” she said. “It’s the flexibility and the awareness that change happens more frequently than we’ve ever expected before, and it will be the only constant moving forward.”
From the proliferation of self-driving cars, to launching data centers that rely on solar energy into orbit, to developing genetically-modified foods with reduced environmental footprints, there are countless ways the next generation of technology will reshape the world as we know it, the panelists said.
Dr. Zhang said the convergence of nano-technology, renewable energy, quantum computing, machine learning and computing are “already reshaping the world in a way that we have never seen before.”
Information about future GW bicentennial events can be found on GW’s Bicentennial Celebration website.