"I WANNA BE AN ASTRONAUT WHEN I GROW UP" was a common refrain from children in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and it might have given the U.S. space program leaders a false sense of security that an endless line of well-qualified workers would be waiting outside their door for years to come. The reality has been that not enough students have chosen science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) tracks in college, so it's more difficult to find the necessary engineers, chemists, programmers and pilots required to propel the space program to new heights.
However, there's good news. NASA is now well aware of the problem and has begun taking steps to remedy the situation. In conjunction with the October 2007 launching of Space Shuttle Discovery, NASA hosted an educational forum titled "Attracting Top-Performing Students to STEM Education Programs and Careers."
Fifty leading educators, students and corporate officials from across the United States were brought together for the event, including executives from Yahoo and eBay and educators from Stanford, MIT, Purdue and other universities. The goal was to discuss strategies to inspire future generations of explorers and innovators. Noted engineering advocate and author Celeste Baine also participated in the event. Since she was a child, she had viewed space exploration as somewhat of a mystery.
"It didn't seem real," Baine said. "I watched launches and it was interesting, but I never had enough information about it. I thought you had to be an aerospaee engineer. Now, I see they're hiring biomedical engineers, mechanical engineers, industrial engineers. There are thousands and thousands of engineers working for NASA." Baine is personally addressing one of the most glaring needs by writing a NASA career guide, and she plans to incorporate more references to NASA in her "Engineers Can Do Anything" presentation and other educational programs she presents in schools across the country.
The day before the forum, participants enjoyed a tour of Kennedy Space Center and the International Space Station exhibit in Florida. Equivalent in size to three football fields, the space station is composed of nodes, some of which Baine found fascinating in the exhibit. "I was thinking how interesting it would be to be an engineer who develops these things for a weightless environment. You could put controls on the ceiling, put things everywhere," she said. "Even the beds were vertical. Astronauts have to be strapped in to sleep. …