Since childhood, I have wanted to be an astronaut. I still would love to venture into space. If I never go to space, I at least hope to become involved with a few of NASA’s many projects. Perhaps I could study some of NASA’s moon rocks or meteorites. Or maybe I could become involved with the Mars missions. As a geochemistry graduate student at MIT, I have a strong chance of working with or for NASA one day, and I find the possibility exciting. However, I don’t think that there are many other twenty-somethings these days who are seriously contemplating a job with NASA. At least, there are far fewer than there were twenty or thirty years ago.
NASA has lost much of its 1950s and 1960s glamour. Looking around at my friends and classmates from my undergrad years, I find that most young people my age seem to want to find good-paying jobs in fields such as finance, consulting, and investment. I guess that working as a scientist or an engineer for NASA sounds like too much work for too little return. Working for NASA is a difficult, mediocre-paying job. Without the sparkle of “I help the astronauts go to the moon” or even “I walked on the moon,” NASA jobs are no longer so appealing.
NASA jobs have become geek jobs and not even super cool geek jobs. A safe, comfortable business job with the promise of a nice apartment and perhaps a sports car has more allure than a NASA job for many of America’s promising twenty-somethings, who otherwise might have made fine astronauts or space scientists or spacecraft engineers. What I see: business jobs are the sexy jobs, these days. NASA jobs? Not quite as sexy.
I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that there is still a sort of sexiness to working for NASA, but I don’t see it in my generation. Sure, people are still impressed if you tell them you work for NASA, but they’re not as impressed as they were twenty years ago, when NASA really had the right stuff. Today, the words “I graduated from such-and-such business school” are becoming just as impressive-sounding, to many people, as the words “I work for NASA.” Business school is not my cup of tea, but I do have to step back and acknowledge that it can be challenging, difficult work. My point is: it isn’t rocket science. NASA is rocket science. Rocket science in space.
That should be cool!
I suppose if one wants to go to space, one can just earn $20 million in finance and book a space tourist flight. Richard Branson will also soon be offering space tourists even cheaper space experiences. Don’t get me wrong. I support these private space ventures. I admire them and consider them very important for the development of spaceflight. However, I also find it very sad that NASA doesn’t have the same pizzaz that it did thirty years ago.
NASA is floundering these days, at least compared to the glory days of the race to the moon. In the 1960s millions of people around the world were glued to the TV screen for the moon landings. These days, who wants to watch a TV program about astronauts repairing parts of the already falling-apart space station? Or about how small pieces of foam keep NASA largely grounded?
Partly, the decline of NASA has to do with the decline of funding directed towards space exploration. The cold war is over, and there is no longer a space race. Potentially, China’s space program will one day inspire America to “keep up” in space, but currently I don’t think that other countries’ space programs are much of a threat to America’s national security or national identity. America still feels like the leader of space exploration, even if America’s space exploration is fading. I’m not sure why our government keeps cutting funding to NASA and keeps cutting science funding in general. Clearly, there is money. America spends millions every week in Iraq. If only a portion of this money were to be invested in science and in space, there would be so much researchers and explorers could do.
However, I don’t think the problem is just a lack of money. I also don’t think that NASA is spending money in smart ways. In my opinion, the space station is a great waste of time, effort, and money. By the time the astronauts finish constructing the whole station, the first parts of the station will need to be replaced. I think that the scientific return of the space station is also somewhat limited. A moon station would be better, in my opinion. Then at least scientists could spend time exploring the moon, and I also think a moon base has potential to be longer-lasting. I say: scrap the space staion and focus on a moon station. NASA does have plans to build a moon station, by 2024 supposedly, but meanwhile they will keep limping the space station along. Honestly, I don’t think that we could even land on the moon these days. We don’t have a spacecraft that can do it. We can build one, but we need some young, smart minds to do so.
I also think NASA should really step up plans for a manned mission to Mars. Admittedly, many people believe that manned missions are a waste of money and are too risky. Certainly, one can argue that a better use of resources, scientifically at least, is found in sending robots and rovers to Mars and other planets. However, manned missions are much more glamorous and adventurous than unmanned missions. While a few million, perhaps, would tune into a TV broadcast of a new rover or robot landing on Mars, I bet a billion would tune in for a manned Mars landing. Also, I think that manned missions are ultimately important for our species as a whole. Stephen Hawking thinks so, too.
A recent CNN article discusses how NASA realizes it no longer appeals to the masses, to youth in particular, the way it did in its glory days. They’re brainstorming how to use modern tools such as YouTube to make NASA more attractive to young people. I hope that some of their strategies work.
My personal contribution to NASA’s image? Whenever I hear a child say confidently that they want to be an astronaut, I reply: “That’s wonderful. I can’t think of a cooler job. You know what? I want to be an astronaut, too.”