Ask a group of kids between five and twelve years old what they want to be when they grow up and you will get many common answers. Sure, there are the professional athletes, doctors, actresses, etc. You will also, however, surely get the classic answer of the past fifty years, astronaut.
Frankly, astronauts have lately lost some of their previous swagger in the public’s eye. The first Mercury astronauts back in the 1960s were practically rock stars – cream of the crop daredevils/test pilots. I would argue that today’s astronauts are just as cool (most are PhD scientists), but they definitely do not receive the same level of attention in our society. In fact, space in general has been the target of criticism and spending cuts, even though every dollar invested in NASA results in $8 injected back into the economy. All of this came to a head when NASA recently opted to let private companies determine the fate of manned spaceflight. In the long run, it will result in faster progress, but it leaves the profession of astronaut up in the air for now.
Nevertheless, our hopeful American youngsters rightly still want to be astronauts, and it is a wonderful dream. Those who harbor that dream are more easily excited by school and are more likely to pursue careers in science and technology (which the country desperately needs now). In other words, we need to keep that dream alive.
Of course actually becoming an astronaut is unbelievable difficult, but that lofty image to which our youth can aspire is the main point here. I am optimistic that within ten years, all of this will not only be resolved, but amplified as manned space flight becomes more common with its commercialization. Until then, we can’t tell nine-year-old Timmy to put his interests on hold until we can sort out the politics. In a time when positive influences for our children are growing scarcer every day, let’s not allow that most iconic of goals to slip away as well.
Max Darnell, a Texas native and first-time author, is currently pursuing his PhD at Harvard University. He received his B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, where his interests included nanotechnology, defense, and biomedical engineering.