The end of the Space Shuttle era is slightly depressing. NASA won't be flying its own astronauts into space for a while, either, putting a further damper on the good PR that comes from the visually and intellectually stimulating space program, which encourages students of engineering and science. To keep folks interested, NASA and DARPA are pushing (a little) money into a program that's directly aimed at students themselves.
Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) are an existing experiment that uses tiny ball-shaped robots that fly inside the International Space Station. They test techniques for keeping real satellites maneuvering in sync so that they can rendezvous and work as part of a swarm—a task that's useful for autonomous satellite servicing, and even the building of future spacecraft.
The offer that NASA's making is that if you design an interesting experiment, and it wins their approval, it'll be used to fly the SPHERES robots for real. In space.
NASA says the program is designed to inspire future scientists and engineers by building critical skills in designing an experiment, in "problem solving, design thought process, operations training, team work and presentation skills." It's dubbed "Zero Robotics," and to register you have to simply visit a couple of NASA websites, design your experiment, and submit it online. Twenty-seven teams will be chosen to have their codes executed by an astronaut operating the SPHERES at a later date.
It's no Space Shuttle, for sure, but it does allow ordinary kids to get excited about space and feel like they're involved—something you don't get from watching shuttles on TV. NASA and DARPA will have to do a lot more of this sort of thing, however, if they want to keep a full reserve of highly motivated and superbly trained young Americans interested in the space program.