USA’s Space Foundation is Charting a Space Education Roadmap Across the World and Africa is Next

Shelli Brunswick, COO of Space Foundation


Founded in Colorado Springs in 1983, Space Foundation is the world’s premier organization to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate on behalf of the global space community. The nonprofit leader spearheads space awareness activities, educational programs, and major industry events, including the annual Space Symposium and now Space Symposium 365

In an interview with Shelli Brunswick, the Chief Operating Officer of Space Foundation and Executive Leader of the Center for Innovation and Education, she discusses the projects of the organization and their future plans for becoming an active participant in the African Space Industry.

Space Foundation is positioning itself as a potentially important partner for Africa towards space education in the future. What is the outlook of your organization towards African collaboration?

We are a US non-profit with global business reach. We have been in business for 37 years and we put together a global symposium that takes place here in Colorado Springs, bringing 15,000 people together from over 50 countries. Spurred by COVID-19, we have expanded our formatting to offer the benefits of the Symposium virtually all year long through Space Symposium 365. This month, we have a great inaugural line up of keynote speakers, expert panels, awards presentations and other programs to learn, collaborate and conduct business in the space community.

At last year’s Space Symposium, we featured a panel that focused on Africa which was very popular. In May of this year, we launched our Center for Innovation and Education and this initiative is dedicated to workforce development and economic opportunities to provide entrepreneurs, small businesses, young professionals, teachers and students access points to the space community. Beyond the requirements of being an astronaut or a rocket scientist which is not always a reality globally for many countries, there are opportunities for every skill set — artists, project managers, administrators, data analysts, and more.

One service of our Center is curriculum — Space Commerce Entrepreneurship curriculum for today’s workforce, and Student and Teacher curriculum to prepare the next generation workforce. There are a number of countries that require a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) inspired curriculum. Our international student art contest is another way of introducing those type of space jobs and career opportunities into the school system. It is critical to start growing the workforce early so you can eventually fill those jobs. This is what we are doing with our Center to set up for innovation and education programs around the globe. For example, the UAE launched its Arab Space Pioneers Program in July, because they have a goal to have a colony on Mars in less than 100 years. To do that, they are now attracting participants from the UAE and other Arab countries to build their workforce.

I’m also a United Nations Space4Women Mentor. There are 35 of us around the world. Several are in Africa, and we all work together to understand the space programs around the world. Since there are many countries in Africa with different levels of their space program and curriculum development, we want to help each country find their place and move forward in the space economy.

Are there particular projects that are for African students in junior levels of education that Space Foundation is working towards?

Right now, we are still developing a working relationship through partnerships. Africa is a very large continent, so we have started partnering with the US Department of Commerce regional office for higher education throughout Africa. Our goal is not necessarily having African students come to the US for higher education, but rather we are looking at how we can work with the school systems in Africa and help provide training for teachers and students, so they can start learning more about space jobs, careers and business opportunities.

We already offer online space-inspired lessons for free that any teacher can download and use in their classrooms. Our initial goal with Africa is to start making inroads through a few like-minded organizations to partner with regions by providing a space-inspired curriculum to encourage space entrepreneurship.

Most recently, we started to interview diverse and successful entrepreneurs with plans to publish those remarks via webinars and in articles. We have interviewed one entrepreneur from Africa last month and are scheduling another one this month. We want to highlight the journey of individuals in Africa that are doing great things that relate to space. So, it’s a two-way street. We want to help get the information to the schools and business communities and identify entrepreneurs and leaders that can work with us to elevate and promote collaborative space innovation on a global level.

How do you intend to follow up with these teachers to ensure that they are not just taking your materials or your curriculum but that they are able to implement them in the different communities that they work in?

If we can work with the teachers, we’ll have a greater opportunity to reach more students and that is why we have a couple of initiatives to follow. On one end, we have an international Teacher Liaison program that has teachers from around the world as participants. We have teachers from Africa, Asia, India and the US. We want to have a global representation with enough teachers to work with each other, share their practices and build a network so that if they are trying to solve a challenge in their classroom, they can connect with other teachers to address that challenge. Important note: the Teacher Liaison program is in its nomination period which closes 18 December 2020, and we will continue to outreach to Africa for inclusion in this vital network of teachers.

Valuable curriculum materials for students, teachers, entrepreneurs and small business are available free today on the Space Foundation website. Another possibility is finding an organization that will sponsor the teacher’s training. Even during COVID, we have been able to provide training remotely, as long as everyone can have access to the internet. And we can do that over the course of a day, week, or a month, matching needs with curriculum, and then aligning them with resources that can work with the teachers to secure required funding via sponsorship or government grants that will pay for that service.

We just completed a wonderful teacher training this past summer. Our philanthropic sponsors from the Washington DC area provided the funding for that scholarship, and this year, we opened it up internationally for individuals to apply to be part of the Teacher Liason’s Professional Development program. Again, possibly there could be a way to provide this training for teachers in Africa either through the US State Department, US Department of Commerce, USAID or the American Chamber. This would allow us to reach more teachers.

Is there a way that Space Foundation is considering funding, equipment and infrastructural challenges, and then taking actions to prevent them from being a stumbling block towards executing the project?

That’s an important question, but it is not an area that we focus on. We are experts in creating the curriculum and workforce development programs. There are other organizations that focus on infrastructure. The Gates Foundation is very passionate about that type of activity, and other similar philanthropic organizations may also provide equipment and infrastructure support. Space Foundation provides the teachers training and space-inspired curriculum once access is available. There should be a way to bring partner organizations together that can provide these complementary services so that we can deliver the teacher training and the student curriculum. I understand that it’s never one challenge in isolation. We have to figure out how to kickstart the ideas to ultimately get to the solutions that we want for teachers and students.

Your funding comes largely from donors. Is there a way that this has at any point in time affected your projections due to the level of funding you are getting from a particular organization?

This is the direction we are moving. For the past 37 years, we have hosted the internationally recognized Space Symposium and have channelled the proceeds into our education programs. Today, we have a strong reputation for providing these type of services, but we are realizing that the needs are growing, and we must find more global sponsors to support these activities. There is tremendous untapped potential in the underserved communities around the globe and that is where we are seeing the greatest demand for what we do. We are in the process of launching our international endowment and know that there are philanthropic donors whose support would allow us to be able to look at the regions that are in need of our activities and provide the required support. We are in the process of launching that endowment and reaching out internationally.

Do you have any plan of attracting more interest in the African space industry? Do you have a local volunteer organization to teach grass-root communities the importance of space activities?

We work with partners such as the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). We also work with the United Nations (UN) Office of Space Affairs. At Space Foundation, we are focused on advancing our global reach, and through our developing endowment, we will be able to partner with organizations like SGAC, the UN Office of Space Affairs and others to make even greater things happen. There are many great people advancing space activities in Africa, and we want to continue to grow those relationships. There are lots of ways we can work together, and we realize each region of Africa may have its own vision for their space program.

Every country in Africa has the potential to create more space innovations and entrepreneurship opportunities for itself. For example, there are a lot of patents available that could be transformed into new technologies and services that impact virtually every industry and have the potential to enhance human life on a daily basis. For example, at NASA, they have thousands of patents at their technology transfer office that could be brought to market, and many of them are not related to national security. They are instead about water purification, growing food and manufacturing, so there is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to potentially look at ways of taking these patents and related space technologies and developing them for their own needs. There are other organizations that are creating business incubators as well for young professionals, entrepreneurs and small businesses. In collaboration with these organizations, our Workforce Development Roadmap provides a pragmatic guide to five core disciplines for entry into the space community: awareness, access, training, connections and mentorship. Space Foundation is not going to do it all, but are the organization that can bring all the players together in partnership to help build on the success of the global space economy.

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