This summer has marked significant new milestones in human space flight. On July 11, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic launched its first crewed voyage into space. One week later, Jeff Bezos blasted off on his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft. These two companies join Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which began transporting people to the International Space Station in 2020 as a partner in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, as leaders in a new era of space exploration.
The new space race, pioneered by billionaires and focused on commercial space flight and tourism, looks much different than the space race of the 1950s and ’60s, but it holds great potential for the future. I’m particularly optimistic about how the strides these companies are making can have a positive impact on STEM education.
Competition Breeds Innovation
On July 20, 1969, three astronauts made history when the Apollo 11 mission team landed on the moon, but more than 400,000 people — engineers, mathematicians, chemists and others — made the historic moment possible. Today, more than 70 countries have space programs and—in addition to Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX — aerospace companies like Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation are working on space transportation initiatives.
Healthy competition can spur new ways of thinking and add a greater sense of urgency to the development of innovative technologies. Many organizations are now devoted to expanding humankind’s reach into the cosmos, and these government programs and public and private companies need skilled, educated engineers and scientists who are prepared to solve big challenges and continue to develop new solutions.
Stories Can Engage Students
In the 1960s, the press turned Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into celebrities. In the 1970s and ’80s, “The Right Stuff“ (the book by Tom Wolfe and its subsequent movie adaptation) brought attention to the test pilots who made history as the astronauts in NASA’s first manned space mission, Project Mercury. Over the course of decades, astronauts routinely went on goodwill tours around the world after returning home from their missions, which brought press coverage and public attention to the space program.
Today, entrepreneurs like Bezos, Branson and Musk come to the space race with their own brand of celebrity. Already media savvy, they garner massive coverage for their projects, which provides an opportunity to build societal awareness and support for new innovations in space exploration.
An additional benefit of this coverage is the opportunity to engage and excite the next generation of graduates and encourage them to pursue careers in STEM fields. Students who might see themselves as future entrepreneurs can get excited about scientific projects like these and choose to follow in their footsteps.
Media stories also help to showcase diversity in the teams working on these projects. For example, Glamour magazine published a feature story highlighting astronauts Sirisha Bandla and Beth Moses, two crew members of Virgin Galactic’s launch of spaceship Unity. The New York Times profiled female pilot Wally Funk, who was part of the 1961 Woman in Space program and finally made it into orbit 60 years later as part of the Blue Origin crew. In addition, several news outlets covered NASA’s pledge to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon with its Artemis program. When young people see others who look like them leading the way in science and engineering disciplines, they are more likely to envision themselves following the same path.
Speeding Up the Innovation Process
We’ve entered an era of rapid advancements in science. In addition to these new achievements in space, we saw the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year — a remarkable achievement, as the fastest any previous vaccine had been developed was four years, the time it took to develop the vaccine for mumps in the 1960s.
In the past 60 years we’ve made the unthinkable a reality. Decades of research combined with urgent new demands — whether they stem from public health needs or a renewed focus on human exploration — are driving these rapid advancements and allowing us to change our future for the better. That future relies on the preparation of the engineers and scientists of tomorrow and the education they receive today.