Sunday, April 22, 2018

Always the Bridenstine, Never the Bride

Earlier this week, my mother, who shares my love of all things space, bought me the Women of NASA Lego set, and oh my God, I can't get over Margaret Hamilton and her stack of code and Mae Jemison's description as "Astronaut, Engineer, Physician, Dancer".  This incredible reminder of the amazingness of NASA and the science they've done is weirdly juxtaposed against the terrifying prospect of how threatened all that is; also earlier this week, the US Senate voted to confirm Jim Bridenstine as NASA Administrator.
Yes, I spent my Wednesday night putting Legos together

Bridenstine's initial nomination was protested by people on both sides of the political aisle, in large part due to concern about a politician taking the role for the first time.1  In the end, he won confirmation by a single vote.  On the bright side, he has often extolled the value of NASA, saying that "Breakthrough space technologies have improved the human condition and transformed nearly every aspect of our lives."2  On the less bright side, his background is in business (he has an MBA from Cornell), and his previous space experience is mostly limited to attempts at policy making and a run as the Executive Director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.3  He rejects the scientific consensus on climate change,4 which is concerning given that NASA is one of the largest providers of climate change data.5  He's previously introduced legislation aimed at focusing NASA's mission on spaceflight and rolling back non-spaceflight endeavors.6  He is also a major proponent of the private commercialization of space,7 which could be positive or negative, depending on how he integrates government and industry.  Concerningly for the leader of any agency, he has also been vocally anti-LGBTQ and has proposed legislation to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

Although there is a legitimate concern that this business man turn politician will turn into this adorable dog when he assumes his new role (and also maybe some hope.  Who doesn't want more adorable dogs in the world?),
I am far, far more concerned about his previous campaigns to limit the scope of NASA's projects, and not just because of the troubling loss of non-spaceflight projects.  In addition to maybe losing funding for telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, satellites like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite, and threats to current climate and environmental science projects, projects studying the interactions between the sun and the planets in the solar system, and a projects with the aim of understanding how the universe works, limiting the scope of NASA is a distinct threat to what is arguably the most important of their stated missions-- "Share NASA with the public, educators, and students to provide opportunities to participate in our Mission, foster innovation, and contribute to a strong national economy."9

People love space.  They share colorful pictures of nebulas, they get excited about the discovery of new exoplanets, they tune in to watch rocket launches, and, for those of us in the US, everything stopped for an hour while millions of people watched the eclipse on August 21, 2017.  Space inspires us.  It makes kids want to be astronauts and gets them interested in math, science, and engineering.  We know this, because we've seen it.  On October 4, 1957, Sputnik, a Soviet satellite, fundamentally changed American science.

Sputnik was launched during the Cold War, a time of intense tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.  It threatened the US's vision of themselves as the global power in science and technology and it brought concerns over what the USSR would use their technology for.  The launch of Sputnik kicked off the Space Race, which directly led to the creation of NASA (1958), the National Defense Education Act (1958), a substantial increase in funding to the National Science Foundation, and the pressure to be the first country to get a person to the moon (1969).10  But beyond the direct response to Sputnik, all of those initiatives had resounding affects on American education and interest.

The NDEA was, as its name suggests, targeted increasing the number of defense oriented personnel, but its methods changed education for all students.  More than a billion dollars was  invested in science curriculum, including training programs for science teachers, research into the use of technology in education, and putting new educational tools directly into classrooms.11  It laid the ground work for Gifted and Talented programs, funded graduate training for students with a desire to become teachers and professors, and introduced a new educational loan program.  In addition to math, science, and engineering, it also poured money into foreign language and programs like African American and Latin American studies.  It provided money for vocational training and for guidance counselors to provide vocational services.12  While  a lot of this was spurred on by feeling threatened by the USSR, it boils down to space and space technologies being a driving force in the education system.

The fire of the Space Race went beyond classrooms; it played a huge role in bringing science and technology to the general public and making people excited about them.  In the 1950s and 1960s, 1200 public planetariums opened in the US, mostly at schools and universities,13 and by 1977 they entertained 10 million people annually.14  In the 1960s and 70s, science centers, museums that emphasize a hands on and interactive experience, began popping up.15  These museums focused on science engagement and getting people, particularly kids, interested in experiencing science.

Technologies developed during this time have become integral to our lives.  GPS, satellites, accurate weather predictions, laptops, 3D graphics and virtual reality, and The Dustbuster were all born out of developments directly related to NASA's work over the past fifty years.  Ear thermometers, for example, use the same infrared temperature measuring technology that NASA developed to measure the temperature of stars.

We are experiencing a resurgence of space excitement, partially driven by spaceflight, but partially driven by other astronomical endeavors.  There are still dozens of programs that use space as a way to get kids interested in STEM.16171819  The rise of private space companies like Space X put new technologies in the news on a weekly basis, and stunts like sending a Tesla into space give people a thrill.  I would argue that the image of the dual landing of the Falcon Heavy boosters will be one of the iconic images of this decade.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
More and more countries are creating space agencies.  The observance of gravitational waves by LIGO has landed astrophysics in mainstream news media.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of Hayden Planetarium in New York, is a celebrity who literally goes on tour to talk about space, selling out theaters on the way.  The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system in 2016 inspired a wave of excitement about exoplanets.  NdGT, astronomer Phil Plait, planetary scientist Emily Lakdawalla, and others all have over 100,000 Twitter followers.  Recently, a tweet by planetary scientist Sarah Horst that showed her holding a piece of the moon and a piece of Mars went insanely viral.20  All this is to say that we are, rightly so, fascinated by ALL of space, the universe, and the solar system. Our excitement and inspiration isn't just limited to spaceflight.

According to Tonya Matthews at a talk given at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences conference in February 2018, "Space is one of the best tools at our disposal for increasing interest in STEM."  We have concrete examples from history of how a national interest in space can improve education, capture kids' imaginations, drive interest in STEM fields, provide data that is critical for sustaining and protecting life on Earth, and uncover fundamental truths about the universe.  This, to me, is the biggest issue with the confirmation of Jim Bridenstine.  Though he claims that we are in "our Sputnik moment",21 his emphasis on spaceflight to the detriment of other objectives actually threatens all the same positive outcomes that Sputnik inspired.  He has also indicated his desire to change the term of the NSAS adminstrator to reach across multiple presidential administrations,22 which could impact interest in STEM, education, and discovery for a generation.

Jim Bridenstine's background in business and politics is doubly dangerous-- he fails to see the scientific and technological importance of all of NASA's aims, and he may have the business acumen and political pull to be effective in his dangerous goals.

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