Space Exploration: What Could be Cooler?

A few years ago I happenedto overhear a conversation between two college students from Harvard, who werespending their spring break in Washingtonto lobby Congress for legislation to promote the growth of commercialspaceflight. To his companion's questionas to why he wanted to devote his career to space, one student respondedsimply, "What's cooler?"

 

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

 

The student I overheardmanaged 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 virtuallyguaranteed to make him wealthier, but none of them set his mind on fire. That passion is what will drive him andothers like him to the hard work it takes to master tough science orengineering subjects, or work the long hours that it takes to become asuccessful business entrepreneur. Whether or not they stick with the career field that was their originalinspiration, they will provide the world with technically competent people totackle the many challenges that will come to the human race in the nextgeneration.

 

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

 

Altruistic dreams, dreamsof "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 channeledin altruistic directions, if it is not stifled. Let children (and some of us grown-ups) keep their "impractical" dreamsof space. Without those dreams, what dowe have? The number of U.S. highschool graduates who plan to study engineering has declined by one-third in thepast ten years. Meanwhile, Europegraduates three times as many engineering students as the U.S., Asia fivetimes as many. Nearly half the degreesgranted in Chinaare engineering degrees. In the U.S.,only one student in twenty graduates with an engineering degree. The percentages of graduate degrees in thesciences are equally skewed against the U.S. Changing those statistics means that ourstudents must have big dreams to propel them through the tough classes.

 

Inspiration isn't the onlyvalue that society gains from fostering an interest in space. But if it were, it would be worth it for thatinspiration alone. So the next timesomeone asks you why you care about all that far-out stuff, why you can't keepyour interests on the ground while the world has so many problems, look themstraight in the eye and say it loud, say it proud:

 

"What's cooler?"

 

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

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