by Jeff Cunningham
A certain corner of the Internet is all afire over an alleged NASA Internal Memo leaked this past weekend. The document, which can be read in full here at SpaceRef or at other sources, mandates the end of NASA’s educational outreach activities in reaction to Congressional sequestration measures. The gist of it follows:
Effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.
Before we go any further, it’s important that we remember a few things:
- “Educational activities” and “public outreach” are vague terms that could mean or not mean any number of things NASA does.
- “Suspended” doesn’t necessarily mean “forever.”
- Most importantly, this is the Internet, where outrageous claims are made, trivialties are exaggerated beyond the bounds of reason, and things are just plain made up every single day. Anything that you read online, no matter what the source, demands more than one grain of salt.
All the same, this story does bring up questions that are worth discussing, namely, just what the proper role of a space program is, and what part we each have to play in it.
As you can well imagine, the (unverified) memo is eliciting knee-jerk reactions from most people along the lines of “Why are they doing that? How could they do that?” My admittedly biased commentary on this will likely make them more upset. You see, I actually see this as a good thing.
It comes back to just what the true purpose of NASA is, and just what a space program should be for. Ever since waking from the post-Apollo hangover, NASA themselves have been unable to articulate just what their mission is. It wasn’t until the Augustine Commission was assembled and convened by U.S. President Barack Obama that anyone was able to actually put words to it. I was in attendance when Jeff Greason summed up why we build rockets and put brave people on top, in order to “expand human civilization’s presence to the outer Solar system.” Note: A common typo that people commit that irks me is not to capitalize the word “Solar,” which is an adjective derived from Sol, the proper name for our sun
As a former rocket scientist, I’ve been blessed to walk in many circles with friends from all corners of the world of aerospace, both public and private. I’ve seen a lot inside NASA, and I can tell you that they have enough difficulty meeting those challenges without also being expected to solve the problems of our public education system at the same time. To call such expectations unreasonable doesn’t begin to do it justice. Releasing NASA from these demands would allow them to concentrate on actually fulfilling their mandate.
Now is the part where I actually risk making some of the readers legitimately mad. For me, it all boils down to just why they react with “But why did they do that?” The key word in that phrase is “they.” It betrays, or at least, I expect it betrays, a profound lack of understanding of how public programs are funded. It suggests that that person honestly believes that governments have infinite money and thus have no excuse for cancelling programs such as NASA.
What’s more worrisome to me is this fixation on “they.” You see, a certain famous novelist pointed out that human beings have a bad habit of blaming everything on a nameless, faceless “they,” without pausing to consider that there’s actual human beings just like them just trying to do the best they can — or whether these “they” boogeymen actually exist outside their imaginations. In the case of NASA, I really get the feeling that most people are content to shy away from the work and sacrifice that colonizing deep space will entail (and make no mistake, it’s not for the faint of heart) and prefer to shove it off and pass the job on to an imaginary “them,” rather than do it themselves. In my book, I’ve always thought of it as “lazy” or “cowardly.” The rest of the world calls it “inspiring the youth to pursue careers in science and technology.”
Does it actually work? I worked for one school year as a teacher’s aide in several high school classrooms, and I can tell you that, when you postpone doing a great work in the hope that your kids will do it for you, they tend to follow suit. We have no right to lament about how “uninspired” or “lazy” our youth are when they’re only following our own example.
NASA, at the height of its outreach program’s budget, had essentially a redundant Department of Education with many, many programs large and small. To be fair, some of them were pretty darn cool, such as the irradiated tomato seeds flown aboard the shuttle that they would then outsource to grade school classrooms to grow alongside normal tomato plants and observe the differences. Most of it, though, was positively cringe-worthy, desperate attempts to be hip to what the kids are into these days, such as Jackie Chan in a cartoon jumpsuit proclaming on NASATV that he’s “Cwazy fo’ space!”
The truth, though, is that all the taxpayer money in all the world will never be as powerful or make as much of an impact in a child’s life as living example. Almost a hundred years ago, a world-famous hot-air balloonist prepared to take off from somewhere in America. Several of the young boys of the village were enlisted to hold down the guy-ropes until the signal of “Let ‘er go, boys!” was given. For one of those boys, the vivid, unforgettable memory of the rare privilege and the image of the balloon ascending into the sky was powerful enough to move him to become one of the most revered and honored heroes of World War I, ace fighter pilot James Norman Hall, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Légion d’Honneur before going on to become a best-selling author.
While still training to become a pilot, Hall had to make a forced landing outside a small village in France on one of his solo flights (this was no failure; at the time, forced landings were not done merely in emergencies, but were an eventuality that had to be planned for, given the primitive nature of aircraft during the period). French law at the time stated that pilots in such situations were to be treated with the utmost respect, and that the mayor was to be held responsible for attending to their needs personally. The curious children of the village were understandably excited, as this would likely be the only time in their lives that they’d ever see an airplane up close. The young pilot was happy to extend to each one of them the privilege of sitting in the pilot’s seat, complete with a tour of the control panel and lessons in its use. Hall wrote in his memoir, High Adventure:
To have an American aviator drop down upon them was an event in the history of that ancient village. To have been that aviator,–well, it was an unforgettable experience, coming as it did so opportunely with America’s entry into the war…one day it will be among the pleasantest tales which I shall have in store for my grandchildren.
After getting his bearings with the help of the village elders, Hall took off once more, this time, to the cheers of the village children, which managed to drown out the plane’s engine. Seeing the waving throng below reminded him of the balloonist from his youth, without whom he wouldn’t have been there:
I kept his memory green until I had passed the first age of hero worship. I know that every youngster in a small village in central France will so keep mine. Such fame is the only kind worth having.
Years later, a father’s example of hard work and selflessness in his career as a NASA astronaut aboard the Skylab space station inspired his son to literally reach for the stars. When told by doctors that he was unfit to fly, he didn’t give up, and instead blazed his own trail, becoming a successful businessman and funding several private space ventures, almost single-handedly financing the birth of the industry before he finally got to live his dream and purchase his own seat aboard a Russion Soyuz craft. Today, the Internet and nerds everywhere know him better as Richard Garriot, or by his avatar’s name in the Ultima series of MMO’s that he created, Lord British.
The lesson is clear: If you want the youth of tomorrow to be inspired to do something great, do something great yourself. The great part is, with space increasingly shifting into the private sector, it’s now more possible than ever for the average individual to play a part and do something truly amazing. Take the story of one Peter Homer of South Harbor, Maine, who, despite being unemployed with kids to feed and having no professional ability beyond making sails for boats, designed a revolutionary new kind of spacesuit gloves, winning $200,000 from NASA and a job with a prominent private space firm. We live in an era where tools are freely available through the wonders of technology for truly anyone to participate. MIT, for example, makes their rocket science courses available for free online streaming along with other subjects, and countless other resources are available to the motivated (we’ll try to collect links to some of the best in the Resources section of our site).
If you’ll pardon us for being self-promoting, we have a suggestion for an easy starting point: While you’re still getting the hang of Rocket Science 101 (or however you eventually choose to “do something right,” as Shepherd Book put it), it only takes five minutes to write a letter to Elon Musk. Tell him why space is important to you, why you think Firefly is awesome, and why he should name his first manned ship Serenity in 2015. Your example will show others that your concern went beyond commenting about it on the Internet, that you felt it was important enough to do something. The “only kind of fame worth having” is leaving behind a legacy of action.