NASA: Where can we go if we aren’t going up?

I was leafing through a recent issue of Time Magazine this morning and came across beautiful images of the U.S. Space Program taken by Dan Winters, a photojournalist who has long been documenting the program’s many take-offs.

    With the future of U.S. manned missions into outer space, the photographs of Endeavor could be the last ever taken of such a program. My aunt, who lives near Cape Canaveral, has been sending me images of take-offs for a few years. Since that first email in 2009, I have found myself oddly fascinated with the space program, reading anything I can, tracking missions, and, most recently, was crazy thrilled that I got to see Discovery fly around the skies of Washington, DC on its way to its indefinite home at the Air & Space Museum in Dulles, VA. In an uncanny turn of events, the Summer Reading Program theme at my library was Invade Your Library, a space, astronaut, and alien theme that included programs hosted by NASA scientists and astronomers. It began the week of the Venus Transit and ended the day the rover Curiosity landed on Mars. (Seriously, that kind of perfect timing must have been planned by some alien trying to mess with my sanity, because that is just too perfect.)

     I have no desire to go into space myself (no where to go, and I’d combust if I “jumped ship”), nor am I completely behind spending $2.5 billion when things are pretty bad on this planet (hunger, unemployment, cancer, AIDS, etc.) and could use some of that money. But I support the space program because it is such a point of fascination with young people who so desperately need to understand that there is a world beyond their own, that their is a profession that could encourage them to think so far outside the box that they would literally end up on another planet. I support the space program because even if they don’t become astronauts (of which there are currently 53…a kid would have a better chance at becoming a medal-winning US Olympian than an astronaut), there are science-, technology-, and engineering-related fields that they could go into, but only after being inspired by space exploration. If they are not inspired as children by watching shuttle take-offs, landings on Mars, and interviews with recently-returned home astronauts, who will engineer these cockpits? Who will create better space suits?

     With so many school systems being instructed to “teach to the test”, there is little room for creativity and outside interests to be discussed and nurtured in the classroom. With working and single parents, and the busy busy!! rush rush!! that is the teen life, there is little discussion or nurturing of creative interests for teenagers in their homes. Our teens are fighting for spots on team rosters or in AP classes, or fighting to get enough to eat at night or to get attention from any adult…how can they find the time to be inspired? I am blaming both school systems and parents here. We take little kids to Air Shows and they explore new lands with Dora on TV every night, but what are we doing for our tweens? Our teens? You know, the age where life starts becoming a tad difficult, dramatic, and, at least in my experience, not without some depressing moments? How can we ensure that they are being given ample time and opportunity to discover rare fields of professional interest, and not choosing a career path just because it is what they were told they would be good at, or what they could do without any effort?

     Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, two astronauts who literally paved the way for future astronauts (and women) passed away this summer. Their names will be on the lips of school teachers and children for generations to come, as the first man on the moon and the first American woman in space. If we do away with manned missions to outer space, leaving no more “firsts” to be conquered, then how will today’s youth be inspired to explore? The mohawk guy did a good job of getting people talking about a young rocker’s place in a NASA laboratory, but did it inspire anyone? Only if they listened to the interview of him and a coworker on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

The interview, aired on August 11 a mere 5 days after they helped Curiosity land on Mars, unveils the incredible path mohawk dude’s coworker Adam Steltzner took to become a mechanical engineer for NASA. Steltzner admitted that he wasn’t the best student, so he dropped out of high school. What got him back on track was:

I became intrigued at the fact that there were a different set of stars in the sky as I’d drive home from playing a show as there had been when I went to the show. And I had some vague recollection about something moving with respect to something else. But I frankly didn’t really know what it was.

So he enrolled at the local community college and a couple decades later found himself in the nation’s (if not the world’) spotlight as the lead mechanical engineer for the Mars Rover landing. A high school dropout was inspired by what he saw in the sky at night, so he enrolled in community college to find the answer to the questions he was asking. This guy could be the guy whose story inspires a teen who doesn’t perform in school so well to seek out the answer to the things that make him say, “How?” “Why?”

We need to get voices and stories like Steltzner’s heard by the tweens and teens whose interests are otherwise thwarted by busy schedules or unsupportive or disinterested parents and communities. We need to encourage teens to do more than the status quo, to look beyond what they are given and told, to seek answers to questions, to go further than they ever expected themselves to go. And I don’t just mean in science and space exploration. I mean art, technology, teaching, librarianship, military, everything! How can we do this?

How can each of us, regardless of our profession, inspire tweens and teens? This is a question I ask myself on a weekly basis. When I plan programs at the library, when I train new volunteers, or even when I just chat with a couple of teens, I am asking myself, “How can I encourage/inspire/guide/help/support them?” I am not in the business of pointing. When someone asks for help I engage them in a conversation, pulling out of them exactly what they need, or perhaps, a vague idea of what they are interested in. And we go from there. Some call it the “reference interview”, I call it “ask until they can’t answer anymore”. Please leave a comment or email me with examples of how you have inspired or encourage tweens or teens to go after their interests. I would love to hear from you.

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