Most space program employees can name particular events or missions they saw during childhood that excited their interest for rocket science, inspired a desire to be space-travelers, or at the very least, captivated them enough to be pilots. With so many parts of the space industry coming to a seemingly "crumbling" slowdown, people are asking: "What will inspire the next generation?"
I'm one of these people... and I am not alone in also being worried. I don't know if "commercial" space flight by private companies is the answer. Many have had decades to fill gaps or develop their own profit strategy -- and yet there has been precious little headway in this arena. I fear a lot of people miss that crucial point.
And in today's breaking news...
CNN posted an article on their front page, featuring astronaut Christopher Ferguson: his (unsurprising) Apollo 11 inspiration, his journey through aeronautical education plus Navy piloting, and his multiple attempts to join the astronaut corps (fourth time is a charm). Equally unsurprising is the Astronaut Selection Office saying that "most applicants who make it have been grooming themselves their entire lives for the job."
I've mentioned recent legislative efforts by the Senate to reboot heavy-launch vehicles, but the "compromise" under which it was passed by the House of Representatives may simply be, as the Orlando Sentinel put it yesterday: Setting up NASA for Another Failure. No minced words, there.
Many people focus on the cost of space exploration (even though it's only a fraction of what NASA actually does!) –- but few comprehend the true cost of letting this portion of American industry lapse.
During the space race of the 60s, the number of people declaring science as their major field of study doubled at every level (high school, college, post-grad and PhD). Wouldn't a repeat of that alone carry valuable rewards?
Now, as evidenced in the article, when kids express wishes to be astronauts, NASA workers give them bland answers, so as "not to encourage false hopes."
CNN's current spotlight also includes a call-to-cameras from iReport for parents and children, asking: What did you want to be when you grew up?
When Ferguson was a child, being an astronaut was a common dream. Is it still? I feel I cannot answer that question objectively, because of course I get many emails from parents and children who are already interested in space... they want to ask questions, they want NASA goodies, and they want information about how things work. Obviously, I don't get emails from kids saying, "I read your blog because I have no interest in space whatsoever."
So, I'm a lousy gauge. But I wonder. When being an astronaut is something purchased instead of something cool, will inspiration be the same?
"Ferguson and most other astronauts paid for their shuttle tickets with graduate degrees and years in the military. But, if commercial organizations take over NASA's shuttle missions, the next generation's astronauts might purchase their ticket as they would a bus or plane ticket."
Great. We're about to lose the concept of an astronaut being an astronaut because he/she was intelligent, educated, physically fit, hard-working and special. Now we'll just have astronauts... who can afford to be astronauts?