This weekend I was told that NASA was shut down. I am not exaggerating when I say that this has happened hundreds of times over the past few years. Hundreds. Of course, NASA has not been shut down, but people outside of the engineering and science fields can’t be blamed for thinking it has been.
For much of the year, I wear a nice winter jacket with the NASA Meatball on the front. It was a gift from my coworkers when I left the agency and took a job in the auto industry a couple years ago. They thought that leaving Northern California for Michigan meant I was going to need all the warm weather clothing they could get me! It was a nice gesture and I wear it with pride. However, it attracts a certain kind of attention. Whenever people outside the scientific community see my jacket, they inevitably ask two questions:
1. Did you work at NASA?
2. Isn’t NASA shut down?
Of course, I always tell them that NASA is not shut down, it is very much still alive and doing science, and that they should go to NASA.gov to see what’s going on these days. I am almost positive that nobody bothers to check the site and that makes me sad.
The issue is obvious: we engineers and scientists aren’t doing flashy things to attract attention like we used to. Breaking the sound barrier in a rocket plane, sending humans into space, walking on the moon (six friggin’ times), and building a fleet of space planes were all spectacularly inspiring moments in scientific history. Camping on a space station with a Russian bus driver is bland by comparison, regardless of the technical achievement that it is. Planning for a mission to Mars two decades from now isn’t very interesting, either. Humans have trouble getting excited about things that won’t happen before the next season of Walking Dead ends. The slowing pace of progress is turning people off.
So the issue is obvious, but the effects of the issue may not be so obvious. When I was five years old, I watched one of our shiny new space planes explode over the Atlantic Ocean. It may sound morbid, but the Challenger tragedy focused my attention on NASA and the scientific achievements happening there. Things like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Shuttle-Mir Program, and the construction of the ISS all inspired me to build my knowledge of science with the end goal being to become a member of that space-faring team. Without the inspiration of the American space program, I would have likely become a machinist like my father. I have the utmost respect for machinists and tradesmen, but my meager skills generally don’t include anything requiring hand-eye coordination or “the knack”.
People born in the 90s or later never got to witness the high operational tempo our shuttle fleet experienced in the 80s and 90s. I got to watch 7 or 8 launches every year, read about their discoveries and science experiments in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, and basically be a witness to history. I was working at the NASA Ames Research Center when Atlantis touched down in 2011 after what is likely to be the last American space plane flight of my lifetime. But by that time, in my 30s, I didn’t need the inspiration the shuttles to help pull me through the rigors of an engineering education. I worked with a number of older engineers over the years with similar stories of inspiration after watching The Mercury Seven and the Apollo moon landings. These are people who are running the scientific ball down the field today. That reach by the leadership of our country (and others) for technical excellence and advancement inspired several generations of engineers and scientists to reach higher than we otherwise might have, and the world has benefited from that (http://wtfnasa.com/#).
Whenever people tell me that they thought NASA was shut down after the shuttle fleet was retired, I am sad. Not because I think they should know better, but because I know exactly why they think that. Nobody on this planet is reaching for Mars like we reached for the moon. Yes, I am well aware of the ultimate goal of the Orion program (I have several friends working on it right now), and I am well aware of the importance of the ISS. The recent mission by Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko to study long term space exposure is critical to our ability to fly to Mars one day, but it’s not flashy and, honestly, should have been done decades ago. It’s not the kind of mission that inspires kids to push themselves in school. “I wanna live in an aluminum can for a year with a Russian and a vacuum powered toilet” said no school kid ever.
So I’ve done a lot of complaining here. What do I think can be done to fix it? Easy. Plus-up NASA funding. As Buzz Aldrin’s t-shirt always says: Get Your Ass to Mars. Do it before it’s too late. Do it before the “big science” momentum of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s is completely gone. After that, immediately go somewhere else. Maybe Titan or Venus. Anywhere. Whatever we do, we need to make sure we don’t lose our technological drive, and that means we need to start inspiring kids today. I have a 2 year old niece and I seriously hope that she can look to the sky one day and know there are explorers up there looking back. I hope that by then we, as a race, haven’t become so disinterested with the stars that we just stop.
“Going to Mars is sooooo expensive. It’s a wasted of money that should be spent on other stuff here”. I ask what’s the cost of not going? What’s the cost of not inspiring young people to rise to the absolute best of their abilities? What if we miss the next Einstein because she failed a standardized test, got kicked out of community college, and became a Deadspin or Kotaku writer instead? What if she had watched an SLS launch as a crew embarked on a mission to Mars, had an epiphany, asked her mom how to work on the space program, worked hard in school to get there, then discovered the secret of faster-than-light travel, allowing humans to stretch to the stars? Can we afford to miss that kid because we were busy poking holes in an asteroid, or camping on the ISS with a Russian?
No, Kids. NASA is not shut down and we’re sorry for making it seem like it is. We’re sorry for putting all of your scientific inspiration in boring history books instead of on the evening news or your Google Feed. Some of us are trying really hard to change that, but it isn’t easy. Please don’t give up on space science! It’s really cool!