A new space race for a new generation
March 29, 2006
By Sen. Bill Nelson Why isn’t the United States developing more aerospace scientists and engineers?
At one time or another, most kids growing up in the 1950s and 1960s wanted to be astronauts, build rockets, study the stars and travel into outer space. We were fascinated by all things related to space exploration.
President Kennedy’s challenge in 1961 to put men on the moon within a decade energized a generation of kids to study math, science and engineering. Just eight years later, the world stood still as it watched Neil Armstrong fulfill Kennedy’s vision.
The federal government played a large role in this great accomplishment. Recognizing the need for a national effort to reach into the heavens, Congress created committees on astronautics and space in 1958 and President Eisenhower established NASA.
One of NASA’s key objectives was to “[preserve] the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology.” Almost 50 years later, we can’t afford to abandon this original goal.
Today, more than ever, we must encourage a new generation of Americans to embrace space exploration. In the past 50 years, space has matured from a novel challenge to a key part of our world. From watching the weather report to making sure we get where we’re going, we depend on satellites and other space systems.
National defense is even more dependent on space and space systems. Development and use of the global positioning system (GPS) has dramatically changed the way the military operates. GPS gives us unprecedented accuracy in our weapons systems and assures that our military men and women are never lost, whether in the middle of a sandstorm or in the middle of the high seas.
And GPS is just a small part of the military’s reliance on space systems. Encrypted communications, intelligence collection, enemy surveillance and targeting — these are just a few military activities that rely on space.
But after years of success and scientific achievements, many of the major military space acquisition programs are in serious trouble today. Plagued by delays and technical engineering problems, these programs are consistently overbudget and behind schedule.
In its 2001 report to Congress, the Space Commission found that “investment in science and technology resources — not just facilities, but people — is essential if the U.S. is to remain the world’s leading space-faring nation.” The report makes it clear that the federal government must expand “the pool of military and civilian talent in science, engineering and systems operations.”
In 2003 and again in 2004, a task force of the Defense Science Board (DSB) found that the government acquisition work force was short of various types of engineers at every level. The task force reported that “the aerospace industry is characterized by an aging work force, with a significant portion of this force eligible for retirement currently or in the near future. Developing, acquiring and retaining top-level engineers and managers for national security space will be a challenge, particularly since a significant fraction of the engineering graduates of our universities are foreign students.” The report highlights the critical need for additional scientists and engineers.
America now faces competition from around the world in fields in which we have long considered ourselves dominant, and the need for a new generation of American scientists has never been greater. This is why I’m co-sponsoring two important pieces of science competitiveness legislation in the Senate: the PACE-Education Act (S. 2198) and the National Innovation Act (S. 2109).
These important proposals would recommit the American government to science and technological research in the 21st century. Among other things, the legislation would provide fellowships for science teachers and scholarships for talented engineers. They also would create early career programs in the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Defense to help provide young engineers with the funds required for high-tech research and development.
We need this new challenge to inspire young people to become scientists and engineers. Only then can we be confident that the United States will remain the preeminent space-faring nation.
To do this, we must ensure that American students have the best teachers and the right opportunities. We must help young students recapture the excitement and mystery of outer space.
In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, we must start a new space race — not with another country but with our students. It will be a race toward excellence that will inspire new dreams of space exploration and its promise.