Your Turn: 50 years after Apollo 11, we must reinvest in STEM
For decades, Americans have been looking up to the night sky for answers to humanity’s biggest questions. This summer is particularly special, however, as we remember the immense achievement of putting a man on the moon 50 years ago and wonder where exploration will take us next. The anniversary of the moon landing is not only a cause for celebration; it also provides an opportunity to commit ourselves to ensuring America retains its ability to lead in addressing global challenges.
Apollo 11 put humans on the surface of another world for the first time. I was privileged to fly five Space Shuttle missions, including two to deploy and service the Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument that revolutionized our understanding of the universe. A few years ago, I realized that my University of Kansas students never knew a time without the Hubble Space Telescope and its many discoveries. I wanted them to understand that great achievements, such as Apollo and HST, don’t just happen: They are the result of coming up with a vision, advocating for the vision, applying technical skill, obtaining great teamwork and leadership, having a willingness to confront and overcome setbacks, and being supported by commitment. This commitment must include providing the resources to achieve the objective, even if the objective may be years or decades away. In a world where we want instantaneous success and feedback, consider this: 11 years elapsed from NASA’s inception in 1958 to the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. The vision of a large space telescope began in 1946. The Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990. These are examples of achievements in life that are worth the investment of time and careers dedicated to realizing a vision.
Americans are justifiably proud of our accomplishments in science and technology, but leadership can’t just be declared. It must be demonstrated. According to a poll from earlier this year, 84% of voters say it’s “very” or “fairly” important that the U.S. stay ahead of China in science and technology research, but China and other competing nations are surging forward with increased investments in research and workforce development as they recognize how important the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are to economic prosperity. The results of that investment can be seen in a July 2019 Harris poll that shows more than 50% of students in China list “astronaut” or “teacher” as their top career choices, while 30% of American students chose “YouTube star” as their preferred profession. Astronaut and teacher were chosen by only 11% of U.S. students. Other nations could soon surpass the United States in scientific and engineering innovations.
When you look up at the sky this summer, perhaps to see the moon or even HST moving rapidly through the twilight, remember that U.S. investment in research and technology has enabled us to achieve great things: It will take continued investment to maintain U.S. leadership and allow the next generation of explorers to achieve their own great things.
— Steve Hawley is a Kansas native who has logged more than 770 hours in space on five space flights. He has been inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and is a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.