President Obama should have tested the announcement of his plans for NASA in front of a crowd of third graders — and probably also Captain Kirk. Their reaction might have been a better test of his plan’s quality. Instead, last month, the president flew his jumbo jet to Kennedy Space Center to tell NASA his vision for its future. There were some big names there, like former astronauts Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and a crowd of engineers, scientists and business leaders – many of the people who have defined American space exploration for the last 50 years.

There was plenty of applause in that room, especially when the president announced his $40 million initiative to create jobs in the areas hit hardest by the ending of the shuttle program. It was clear he was making changes to his original plan for the space program, undoubtedly in response to previous outrage over its apparent lack of priority. But as he talked about ending the shuttle program or cancelling future trips to the moon, I would have liked to see the expression on a third grader’s face. For them, the mystique of the space program has nothing to do with how many jobs it creates or the practical applications of space research. For them, it’s about building “castles in the sky,” as goes the song in the French film, “Les Choristes.” Future generations need to have a space program that inspires them.

When I was in third grade, I had a space shuttle made of LEGOs. There were buttons you could press that would cause it to make rocket sounds. I loved it. I spent a significant portion of my childhood flying that space shuttle around the living room. Watching the president’s speech and hearing “Stars and Stripes Forever” piped through the huge assembly room in which he spoke, I couldn’t help but feel a little unconvinced that he really, genuinely understands the impact the space program has on young people.

I actually agree with most of the president’s plan. For decades, the space agency has been bogged down and demoralized by inconsistent funding from Congress and the constant threat of mission cancellations. More recently, President George W. Bush’s NASA plan was incompetently assembled, unreasonable and impossibly underfunded. His initiative to put humans back on the moon by 2020 — the Constellation program — had already fallen horribly behind schedule and over budget by the time President Obama came into office.

Obama plans to increase NASA’s funding by $6 billion in the coming fiscal year. He’s cancelling the high-cost Constellation Program in favor of using private companies to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. He plans to extend the life of the International Space Station and, in response to widespread concerns about the lack of vision in his plan after the release of his budget weeks before, the president also said he’s interested in deep space. By 2025, he hopes to have astronauts visit an asteroid and by the mid-2030’s orbit Mars. “And a landing on Mars will follow,” he said. “And I expect to be around to see it.”

But “I expect to be around to see it” is a little less powerful than Kennedy demanding moon landings by the end of the decade, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And that’s what Obama’s plan is really missing. His new direction for NASA is hopeful, and it will put the agency on course for real success in the future. His goals are clearly attainable. But the third graders, the future scientists and engineers, wouldn’t have been clapping.

Space is the dream that drives many engineers and scientists at this university. In danger of getting overly sentimental, space was the passion that pushed me to spend a full summer in middle school picking up trash to earn money for a telescope $600 “Mak-Cass”and the many cold nights in the driveway that followed. It was the dream behind waking up at 4:30 in the morning to watch the first images arrive from Huygens’ landing on Titan. And frankly, I would not have chosen to study engineering without that dream.

I’m getting all sappy because my experience is far from unique. For thousands of young people, the space program is the indispensible motivation to study math and science. In a nation bleeding for scientists and engineers, we simply can’t afford not to make space a priority. That’s partly why, in his letter to Obama, the iconic former astronaut Neil Armstrong called elements of the president’s proposal “devastating.” That’s why we need a space program that third graders — not bureaucrats — can get excited about.

Nicholas Clift is a summer assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at nclift@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.