So after a false start due to bad weather, the first crewed launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule with two astronauts on board has gone ahead. After playing catch-up with the ISS for around 27 hours they’re now safely aboard. At times it seems that space launches have become everyday occurrences, but they are still heroes who have risked their lives in the furtherment of mankind’s exploration of space. Their achievement, and that of all the scientists, engineers, and other staff who stand behind them, is immense.
I watched the drama unfold via the live video feed. Having heaved a huge sigh of relief once they were safely in orbit, the feed cut to the studio, and then moved on to interview the NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. He was naturally elated at a successful launch, and enthused about the agency’s achievement. You can watch the full interview embedded below, but what caught my attention was his parting sentence:
And if this can inspire a young child to become the next Elon Musk, or the next Jeff Bezos, or the next Sir Richard Branson, then that’s what this is all about
I was slightly shocked and saddened to hear this from the NASA administrator, because to my mind the careers of Musk, Bezos, or Branson should not be the ones first brought to mind by a space launch. This isn’t a comment on those three in themselves; although they have many critics it is undeniable that they have each through their respective space companies brought much to the world of space flight. Instead it’s a comment on what a NASA administrator should be trying to inspire in kids.
Ask yourself how many billionaire masters-of-the-universe it takes for a successful space race compared to the number of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, technicians, physicists, et al. From the anecdote of the NASA administrator it takes about three, but if he is to make good on his goal of returning to the Moon in 2024 and then eventually taking humanity to Mars it will take a generation packed full of those other roles. To understand that we’ll have to take a trip back to the Apollo era, and how that generation of kids were inspired by the spacecraft on their screens.
Fifty years ago, we were very much on the brink of becoming a spacefaring planet. American astronauts were taking their first steps on the Moon, and Soviet cosmonauts were occupying real space stations that would soon be capable of housing them for months at a time. Planetary probes were returning colour TV pictures from other worlds, and it was certain that in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo programme we’d be sending astronauts and probably cosmonauts too further afield. A Mars base in the 1980s perhaps, and following our fictional Star Trek heroes further afield thereafter.
We now know it didn’t quite work out that way, but a whole generation of tech-inclined kids grew up wanting nothing more than to be involved in space flight. The vast majority of us never made it, but with that inspiration we took our soldering irons and 8-bit home computers and ran with them. Those NASA folks were the coolest of role-models, and no doubt their Soviet equivalents were too for kids on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
With the best will in the world, the chances of any kid becoming the next Jeff Bezos is about as high as that of their becoming the next Neil Armstrong. Compared to the number of kids in the world, the number of billionaires and the number of astronauts both pale into statistical insignificance. But the chances of a kid becoming an engineer or a scientist is much higher, and in those careers their chances of having some of their work be involved with the space effort becomes not entirely unlikely.
I understand what the NASA administrator was trying to say, but can’t shake the feeling that if those are the people he rolls out to inspire kids watching a space launch, he’s missed an opportunity. Those are the names we all recognize, but shouldn’t we also elevate the people making the scientific breakthroughs so their names are equally recognized? Like Margaret Hamilton, Gene Kranz, and Sergei Korolev and many others before them, we should be making names like Tom Mueller and Margarita Marinova prominent examples of where a career in the sciences can take you. But to be honest, the real problem is we just don’t hear much about all the people doing this fascinating engineering and that’s a sad state of affairs.
Looks like it’s time for Hackaday to pursue a biography series based on the many great minds who are the ones delivering on the promise and vision of today’s (and tomorrow’s) space race. Get us started by talking about your favorite behind the scenes science folks in the comments below.