A few years ago I happened to overhear a conversation between two college students from Harvard, who were spending their spring break in Washington to lobby Congress for legislation to promote the growth of commercial spaceflight. To his companion's question as to why he wanted to devote his career to space, one student responded simply, "What's cooler?"


That pretty well sums it up for those of us who care about space, doesn't it? Once you get past all the rationalizations about why other people should care about what we do, it comes down to adventure - an adventure of the mind as well as of the body. Some folks are adventurous, and they are the ones who move society ahead. Other folks aren't - and they make sure a society exists that can be moved ahead. These two groups need not be enemies, but they are not natural allies. They just aren't talking the same language.


The student I overheard managed to give the space movement a two-word manifesto. As a graduate of a leading Ivy League school, there are lots of career paths he could have chosen that are virtually guaranteed to make him wealthier, but none of them set his mind on fire. That passion is what will drive him and others like him to the hard work it takes to master tough science or engineering subjects, or work the long hours that it takes to become a successful business entrepreneur. Whether or not they stick with the career field that was their original inspiration, they will provide the world with technically competent people to tackle the many challenges that will come to the human race in the next generation.


I have heard folks from the "practical" camp ask why it takes space to inspire students to technical excellence. Why can't they get equally inspired with the idea of finding a cure for cancer, or developing a more fuel-efficient car that pollutes less? Well, the simple, demonstrable fact is that they don't. Anyone who observes children, or who remembers their own childhood dreams, knows that two subjects are guaranteed triggers to young imagination: space (no, say it the way we did when we were kids - "outer space") and dinosaurs. Those are the Big Ideas, the worlds beyond the everyday world we live in. They draw us to look outward and upward, instead of inward and downward.


Altruistic dreams, dreams of "helping our fellow man" - those come later, if they come at all. The dreams of youth are more selfish. Yet that hunger for adventure may later be channeled in altruistic directions, if it is not stifled. Let children (and some of us grown-ups) keep their "impractical" dreams of space. Without those dreams, what do we have? The number of U.S. high school graduates who plan to study engineering has declined by one-third in the past ten years. Meanwhile, Europe graduates three times as many engineering students as the U.S., Asia five times as many. Nearly half the degrees granted in China are engineering degrees. In the U.S., only one student in twenty graduates with an engineering degree. The percentages of graduate degrees in the sciences are equally skewed against the U.S. Changing those statistics means that our students must have big dreams to propel them through the tough classes.


Inspiration isn't the only value that society gains from fostering an interest in space. But if it were, it would be worth it for that inspiration alone. So the next time someone asks you why you care about all that far-out stuff, why you can't keep your interests on the ground while the world has so many problems, look them straight in the eye and say it loud, say it proud:


"What's cooler?"


Clifford R. McMurray is a former member of the National Space Society's board of directors.