by Chris Tobias
Like a lot of people who enthusiastically support manned spaceflight, I was a bit dismayed by the results of a recent survey conducted by Monmouth University, in which 1,000 adults were asked at random in a telephone interview whether or not they’d take a free ride into space if it were offered to them. I was shocked to read that just 28% of Americans surveyed (roughly 1 in 4) said they’d want to take that free ride on a rocket ship.
As a high school teacher who teaches Advanced Placement German courses to juniors and seniors, I’m always looking for thought-provoking essay topics to assign for students’ journals, and this seemed to me like a good opportunity to assign an essay that would challenge my students to develop and express their own opinions (in German) about this very timely and interesting topic, while at the same time conducting my own little survey to gauge their interest in going into the black.
So, I asked my 20 Advanced Placement German students, 11 high school seniors and nine high school juniors, all ages 16-18, the following question (translated from German): “If someone gave you the chance to travel into space on a rocket free of charge, would you go? Why or why not?” Though it was not part of the prompt for the essay, I explained to the students that this would not be a one-way trip like Mars One, but rather an opportunity to visit space and return to tell the tale, provided that everything about the trip remained nominal from launch to recovery. Students were required to explain their position on the topic in an essay of two pages or more, which they wrote in their essay journals. Once again, I would be surprised by the results, though this time for a very different reason.
Of the 20 students who gave me written responses, 14 of 20 said they would accept a free trip into space– 70% of those asked– a far cry from the 28% of Monmouth’s survey. Now, gorrammit Jim, I’m a linguist, not a scientist. But I’m not so whimsical in the brainpan that I don’t know there are a number of factors that could explain such a disparity. For starters, my survey sample was only 2% of the size of Monmouth’s, and all of my survey subjects were in their late teens, whereas Monmouth surveyed adults of various ages. It’s also worth noting that the type of student who elects to study Advanced Placement German in high school is most often the type who is looking at a career in business, engineering or academia, so my survey was hardly geared towards a “random” population. And in the interests of complete disclosure, the school district in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in which I teach (also, incidentally, the district in which I grew up) is primarily made up of white, middle-class families, and at present all of the students in my AP German classes fall into that demographic– again, hardly random. Nonetheless, these factors do not detract at all from what these young men and women actually said. (Note: Quotes that follow are translated from the original German.)
Even those students who responded in the negative couldn’t deny the “cool factor” of the proposition, but the overwhelming concern among them was their personal safety, as expressed by Grant, 17: “At first I’d say yes, because it would be great. I’d like to travel to Mars, like (Mark) Watney in The Martian. I’d do that because I’d like to have the title of “first man on Mars.” But then I’d say no, because it would be dangerous. Our technology is good, but not good enough.”
Those who responded in the positive tended to focus more on the uniqueness of the experience, the adventure and the fact that the trip would be an ideal one to make while one is still young. Steven, 18, had the following to say: “Fewer than 600 people have gone to space. Such a chance only happens once in a lifetime. It would practically be a sin to pass up this chance. Now I’m young and healthy, and now is the perfect time for me to travel into space. I would definitely not let this chance pass me by.” Brenden, also 18, summed up his enthusiasm for the trip in one sentence: “Ten minutes in space would be like two years on our planet.”
I found it interesting that a few of those who said they would want to go even went so far as to say they would not regret taking advantage of the opportunity even if something were to go wrong, resulting in their deaths. Steven, for example, said, “Even if something tragic happened and I died, that would be okay. I’m young. I don’t have any children who need me. I don’t have any dependents. It would be worth it to go to space, even if I died.” Statements like his reminded me of what Social Studies teacher Christa McAuliffe told Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show shortly before launching aboard Space Shuttle Challenger on the ill-fated STS-51-L mission, never to return, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”
As encouraging as my students’ responses were, I couldn’t help but wonder if I weren’t at least partly responsible for them. I must admit, I talk to my students all the time about my love of science-fiction in general and Firefly and Serenity in particular, and on more than one occasion I’ve discussed with my students (mostly in German, of course) my involvement with Take Back the Sky and what we’re trying to accomplish. Thanks in large part to conversations we’ve had in class, many of my students are probably more aware than most kids their age of the current state of American space exploration and the potential of the commercial space industry in general and companies like SpaceX in particular. If that’s the main reason for their mostly positive reaction to the essay question though, is that really a bad thing?
Perhaps the real question that we educators should be asking ourselves is, “If young Americans are more likely to view the possibility of future space travel in a positive light if their teachers speak favorably of space and space exploration, shouldn’t we be making an effort to do just that?” I’m a German teacher. I teach a world language, not Science or Social Studies. Yet when I asked my students if they ever talk about space or the space program in any classes other than mine, they responded that they did not. I’m not pointing this out because I’m trying to tear down my colleagues in those other departments. I’m just saying that there is an opportunity for us as educators across all curricula to inspire students who may someday want to break atmo and explore the ‘verse by showing them that their teachers are excited about the prospect of the continued manned exploration of space, and if a German teacher can make strides towards doing that, imagine what a Science or Social Studies teacher could do. If Americans aren’t interested in going into space, maybe we simply need to do more to show them why they ought to be.
And what about those Americans in Monmouth’s survey? What about those who are no longer in our school system, or even those young Americans who aren’t fortunate enough to have teachers who encourage them to look to the heavens? Well, that’s where the work we’re doing here at Take Back the Sky takes on even more significance. Maybe those Americans can’t be inspired by a teacher in the classroom, but they can still be influenced by the subtle connection between the pop culture that keeps them entertained and the world of science that shapes their future and that of their children and their children’s children. NASA recognized that influence in the 1970’s when it agreed to name the first of its space shuttles Enterprise, and SpaceX already indicated a certain awareness of that fact when it named its Falcon 9 booster rocket after the Millennium Falcon and its Dragon capsule after “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”
Something as simple as naming the next manned US spacecraft after a scrappy transport ship from television and film and her crew that embodies so much of the American spirit with their love of freedom and their never-say-die attitude might not seem like a big deal to some, but I think it’s worth every bit of my time and effort if that name can inspire even a few young Americans who love what it represents to think more like my student Becca, age 18:
“I think God gives us everything as a gift. So why wouldn’t I go to see God’s gift? Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Do something once a day that scares you.’ She has the right idea. Nothing exciting comes from the comfort zone. If we do things that don’t normally happen, those are the best times. Then the moments happen that make our lives great. If I didn’t take the chance (to go into space), then my life would have no adventure. And whatever happened, I wouldn’t be alone. I just have to think of God.”
Well said, Becca.
Until next time, peace, love and rockets…