Budding young scientists, engineers and astronauts – their dreams of space exploration at a crossroads – landed in Buffalo this weekend for Space Vision 2012, the largest student-run space conference in the United States.

Many of these college students grew up hoping one day to work for NASA.

But with the space shuttle program history and budget cuts on the horizon, the future of the space program would appear bleak – right?

“It’s just the opposite,” said Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of Space Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit space advocacy group. “The end of the shuttle really was emblematic of the end of the old, slow and expensive way of doing things. What we’re about to see is the real opening of the frontier.”

And that means transitioning from a space program heavily funded by the government to one with growing involvement by private industry.

There are as many as two dozen of these space-related companies out there right now, Tumlinson said.

SpaceX, a California-based space transport company, last month completed the first of its 12 deliveries to the International Space Station, using an unmanned capsule.

Planetary Resources, a company backed by a group of high-tech movers and shakers, this year announced plans to mine asteroids for precious metals to send back to Earth.

Virgin Galactic, another California company, is a year or two from offering space flights for tourists. A ticket: $200,000.

“We’ve got a lot of customers who have signed up,” said William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects for Virgin Galactic. “In fact, this summer we crossed the threshold of more people who have bought a ticket to fly to space with us than have ever been to space before.”

“We recognize it doesn’t mean as much until we actually fly them,” said Pomerantz, a Williamsville native, “so we’re working to do that, and we’re going to give them an experience that is life-changing, that is a lot of fun and also is educational.”

Pomerantz and Tumlinson were among 50 heavy-hitters from the space industry at the conference, hosted by the University at Buffalo’s chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

Panel discussion topics included NASA’s transition to the post-shuttle era, private investment in space, and “2032: Where are we going from here without the money?”

The conference was attended by 250 students from around the nation, some close to graduating and wondering about their prospects in space and aeronautics. The speakers offered an upbeat message.

“Frankly,” said Tumlinson, who is considered influential in the space movement, “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 10 years some coalition of these wealthy guys doesn’t announce that they’re going to build the first colony on Mars.”

“I think we’re really in an interesting place right now,” said Chris Scolese, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“We have a rover on Mars. We have a fleet of satellites orbiting the Earth and telling us more and more about our planet,” said Scolese, a graduate of UB and Cleveland Hill High School. “We have incredible astronomical telescopes that have told us the universe is different than we thought.”

It’s important for the public to remember we are not done in space, said astronaut Peggy Whitson.

In fact, last month marked 12 years with a permanent U.S. presence aboard the International Space Station, she said.

“I think if you ask the average citizen, a lot of them think NASA has been shut down, because the space shuttle has been shut down,” said Pomerantz, “but that was not all of NASA, much less all of the space industry here in the United States.”

Both Scolese and Whitson see NASA focusing more on the research and development needed to take humans on long space journeys beyond Earth’s lower orbit, with private industry providing the capability for spaceflight to be less expensive and more routine.

Whitson believes space exploration is still crucial.

“We do need to pursue it, because it provides so many spin-offs and developments in our technology,” said Whitson, who served as the first woman commander of the International Space Station. “In order to be a technological leader in the world, we have to keep pushing the boundaries, and space exploration is one of the best ways to do that.”

Another important role for NASA moving forward is reaching out to the public to explain why investing in space exploration is necessary, said Hussein Jirdeh, head of communications and public outreach for the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“If you don’t have the public with you, or know where you’re headed, you can’t sustain a long-term investment in technology and exploration,” said Jirdeh, a UB graduate.

Pomerantz, Scolese, Whitson and Jirdeh all emphasized the role of the next generation in fulfilling American potential in outer space, which served as this weekend’s theme.

“There’s a lot of potential coming down the pike right now, and the main thing the next administration can do is to create a way for students to be able to get out there,” Tumlinson said. “It’s not so much what we already know about space that’s important, it’s about putting minds and imaginations into space to make discoveries we don’t even know will happen.”

Students like Andrew Dianetti and Zach Pace are encouraged.

“If it were 10 years ago, you wanted to go work for NASA,” said Dianetti, 21, a UB senior majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “Now, there are all these different space companies out there.”

“I’m a ’90s kid. I grew up with the space shuttle,” said Pace, 20, a UB junior. “It really motivated me to pursue a career in science.

“Now, I realize that, honestly, it was a lot of the same stuff, and that ground is really well tread,” Pace said. “Instead, the ground is really ripe for a lot of private companies.”