01/24/2012 02:01 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

A Journey Into Distant Worlds: Making Space Exploration Come Alive for Young Earthlings

George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic -- the pioneering U.S.-based space tourism company -- made a thought-provoking statement recently that does a great job of crystallizing just how far we have come in space travel and exploration.

Said Whitesides: "It's important for children today to realize that they are growing up in a world where, if anyone puts their mind to it, they can go to space." He added, "Since the dawn of the space age, only about 525 people have been to space." And as space travel today is made safe and more affordable for the private citizen, "Virgin Galactic is hoping to fly that number of people into space the first year to year-and-a-half of our operation."

Think of it: Kids going to bed tonight dreaming of going into space stand to have that goal fulfilled multiple times within their lifetime as technology and innovation endeavor to make space travel for the average citizen as common as transcontinental airline flight.

These are the types of advances in space technology that young students and others need to know about, and which we will be featuring in spades this spring at the U.S.A. Science & Engineering Festival the nation's largest celebration of science and engineering.

Dedicated to inspiring the next generation of innovators as well as informing the public about the fascinating world of technology, the Festival hosted by Lockheed Martin will (among other exciting areas of science and engineering) take visitors behind the scenes in space exploration as NASA and other partners in the aerospace industry forge bold new paths in this field.

Join us April 28-29, 2012, in Washington, D.C. when Festival visitors, through exciting hands-on presentations with aerospace professionals, get inside information on what it takes to travel to the moon and Mars, as well as what the future holds for space travel for the private citizen. And don't miss the opportunity to meet and hear the stories of exciting pioneers in space exploration -- the astronauts and private space travelers who helped pave the way for the future.

We feel especially fortunate to have such industry leaders as Lockheed Martin and NASA returning as key sponsors and participants in the Festival. In addition to their long history of commitment to motivating students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through hands-on outreach programs, they provide unparalleled insight into the world of space travel.

NASA leads space exploration in the United States and the world, with exciting missions in aeronautics, robotic and human exploration, and science. The agency retired the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, and is fostering a new era of spaceflight with breakthroughs in technology and innovation to send humans deeper into space as it inspires the next generation of engineers, scientists and explorers.

Lockheed Martin, the host of the Festival and a leading aerospace company, spearheads the industry in developing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA's next-generation spacecraft for future human exploration throughout our solar system.

Says Dr. Ray O. Johnson, Lockheed Martin senior vice president and chief technology officer: "The journey ahead is exciting, and it will lead us to new discoveries and distant worlds."

It is our aim during the Festival to give kids a peek into these discoveries and distant frontiers by providing them an up-close look into cutting-edge space technology, and giving them the chance to meet and interact with members of the space community, including people who have traveled into space as NASA astronauts and as private citizens and as leaders from companies who hope to make space tourism more broadly available.

Our agenda of exciting presenters includes: John Mace Grunsfeld, Ph.D., a five-time Space Shuttle astronaut; electrical engineer Anousheh Ansari, who made world headlines in 2006 as one of the first female private space explorer, and legendary computer video game innovator Richard Garriott who in 2008 became the sixth private citizen to journey into Earth's orbit.

"I made my space travel experience a productive one that went beyond simple sightseeing and personal fulfillment," says Garriott. While on his 12-day journey aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft to the International Space Station as a self-funded tourist, Garriott -- whose father is former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott -- conducted several experiments, took photographs and communicated with students.

At the Festival, he will shed light on what he thinks space travel will look like over the next 20 years, as well as how anyone with a passion or vision can achieve his or her dream, including space travel.

Also presenting will be such serial entrepreneurs as Elon Musk, co-founder of SpaceX which is best known for producing such high-performance space launch vehicles as the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. (A Merlin rocket engine developed by Space X will be at the Festival for visitors to examine.)

In addition, visitors will learn more from George Whitesides on Virgin Galatic's goal of creating a fleet of spaceships by 2013 that can begin transporting people into space on a regular basis.

Like the these esteemed Festival partners, I believe that space remains one of the greatest frontiers to explore for America and the world. Come join us for the journey next April at the Festival!

Click here for a more in-depth look at the Festival's space-related activity schedule.