|Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.|
Since the tragic space shuttle Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, the U.S. space program has been in the news daily. The future of the shuttle program is in question as a result of the accident that killed the seven astronauts. While an independent review board investigates the cause of the catastrophe and recommends changes to NASA, a national conversation is under way to consider the purpose and goals of the space program.
Rensselaer has had a long association with the U.S. space program dating back to its early days when George Low 48 directed the Mercury and Gemini programs. Low, who went on to become the 14th president of Rensselaer, was tapped by NASA in 1967 to rebuild the devastated Apollo program after three astronauts were killed in a simulator fire. In the aftermath of the fire, much like after the Challenger and now the Columbia disasters, many believed the program had overreached and needed to be scaled back. In fact, in 1967, many of the best minds considered a trip to the moon impossible, but Low took on and met the challenge, as he directed the Apollo program at the time of the first lunar landing.
Lows legacy at NASA, which included initial plans for the space shuttle program and the launch of joint space projects with the Soviet Union, is as vital as ever. As NASA finds itself, once again, at a crossroads, the nation can look for inspiration in Lows belief that the space program needed to go ahead boldly and to not retrench in the face of disaster. In fact, Low said: Without risk there can be no progress. As a scientist, however, he knew nothing less than perfection was acceptable, especially when ensuring the safety of others.
Despite the recent tragedy, the space program still enjoys wide support. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken after the Columbia disaster showed 82 percent wanted manned space flight to continue. The appeal of space exploration cuts across boundaries of race, religion, gender, and nation, as evidenced by the remarkably diverse Columbia crew. It captures peoples imagination because it pushes back the frontiers of science, technology, and the human mind. The urgent question is how to sustain and grow this support as the country charts the future of the program.
Education, of course, plays a key role in the future of Americas space program. With intense attention focused on NASA, the agencys workforce crisis has been cast in sharp relief. In fact, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a report in January stating that NASA faces critical losses of trained workers in the coming years due to retirements. The report found that the average age of the NASA workforce is over 45, with the over-60 engineers, scientists, and high-technology workers outnumbering the under-30 workers nearly 3 to 1. The report also found that currently 15 percent of NASAs science and engineering employees are eligible to retire, and within five years that number jumps to 25 percent. The drain on the NASA workforce is compounded by the narrowing pipeline of workers with science and engineering backgrounds graduating from our colleges and universities.
These troubling statistics should be a clarion call to all of us to ensure a robust and well-educated next generation of NASA workers. Fortunately, there is ample enthusiasm to tap among young people for space explorationand for other careers in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. While many adults have become inured to the relative ease and frequency of space travel, students in elementary schools across the country are not so jaded. In fact, they and their teachers closely follow shuttle flights, learn about the astronauts, and observe and take part in experiments. We must identify the talented students among this pool, especially girls and underrepresented minorities, and provide programs and mentoring that will follow them through junior high school to college, and beyond.
George Low once said: I know of too many people who have failed because they thought they knew everything and refused to listen to others.
As the country considers what kind of space program it wants for the 21st century, we would do well to heed Lows caution and to think innovatively and imaginatively about our future in space.
|Rensselaer Magazine: March 2003|
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