Calling diversity an “extremely important,” priority at a unique geospatial lab that opened last week at the T-Rex Innovation Center, State Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, said he sees the military and private sector collaboration in Downtown St. Louis as an exciting opportunity for the entire region.
”This is an opportunity to not only diversify the workforce but also provide an unprecedented number of people an opportunity to go into a field that they may not have gotten exposure to any other way,” said Williams, one of dozens of guests at a celebration that marked the launch of Moonshot Labs, the first unclassified innovation lab created by The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
“I think it's going to create opportunities for investment that not only St. Louis has not had, but it clearly desires,” Williams added.
Federal, state and local government officials gathered on the fifth floor of the T-Rex center to laud the opening of the labs, which are housed in 12,000 square feet on the building’s third floor.
The space will be used primarily for software development, pairing staff from the NGA -- whose predecessor organizations mapped the moon in support of the Apollo missions in the 1960s -- with local tech workers, businesses and academicians.
It will be one of about a half-dozen anchor tenants in the eight-story T-Rex space, and will give the agency a head start on collaborative efforts that will expand with NGA’s $1.7 billion under-construction campus in the St. Louis Place neighborhood in north St. Louis. The Next NGA West facility is set to open in 2025, and also will be an unclassified, collaborative workspace.
Information on the cost of the Moonshot Labs was not immediately available.
NGA describes itself as a “unique combination of intelligence agency and combat support agency” that delivers “world-class geospatial intelligence that provides a decisive advantage to policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals and first responders.”
Having the St. Louis labs operate as unclassified allows agency workers to collaborate face-to-face with “partners throughout the geospatial community,” the agency said in a statement.
“Today is a way for accelerating our pledge to you all — 4 years before the opening of the Next NGA campus here — that we truly want to be part of the St. Louis community,” NGA Director Vice Admiral Robert Sharp said in a statement.
Williams said he sees one of the imperatives, for the NGA and its partners in the lab, to “ensure that people of color are involved in the process, women are getting fair and equal opportunities to thrive in this capacity. And most importantly, we're looking...to do everything we can to attract and retain local talent.”
Sharp, in an interview with The St. Louis American, said the lab’s focus on diversity would start with the NGA staffers.
“Diverse participation in anything we do is really important because it's diverse ideas that solve complex problems,” said Sharp, taking a break from a tour of the new lab. “So we're pretty passionate about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in everything we do.
“What we're looking at as far as diversity is built into our workforce planning, growing the workforce of the future, which includes looking at growing our diversity in every way that that word can be defined throughout the agency, but specifically also with Moonshot,” he said.
Sharp, in a statement, called Moonshot Labs an “all-of-enterprise effort to speed up the delivery of the capabilities necessary to deliver that trusted geospatial intelligence our military, policymakers and first-responders require.”
The agency has forged research and development agreements with St. Louis University and has an educational partnership agreement with Harris-Stowe State University to build a curriculum that will help strengthen the agency’s talent recruitment pipeline for the future.
Harris-Stowe, an HBCU, has an office adjacent to the Moonshot Labs.
“So you can imagine, if we have a hard problem that we're working on, we can say, ’you know what, let's partner with Harris-Stowe on this,” said Christine Woodard, who works as the Ecosystem Engagement Lead, essentially a liaison, for the NGA. “So you would have the students actually sitting in Moonshot Labs right next to our software developers, our analysts, and that way they can all be working together to develop solutions.”
Woodard said the agency also is looking to find ways to get students more excited about STEM classes adding “we're looking to partner with some of the schools right around where [Next NGA West] is going to be.
Karen Robinson-Jacobs is The St. Louis American / Type Investigations business reporter and a Report for America corps member.