Yes, I spent my Wednesday night putting Legos together
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?),
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.16, 17, 18, 19 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 CommonsMore 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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