By Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.
The space shuttle Atlantis is preparing for mission STS-135, the last mission by a NASA space shuttle. This marks the end of an era in space flight and exploration, as well as the start of a new one whose future is still somewhat uncertain. The shuttle program has always had its share of controversy. From the beginning the promise of a cheap, easily reusable launch vehicle proved elusive, not surprising given the challenge of lofting large payloads into orbit--"rocket science" is our metaphor of choice for highly difficult problems for a reason. And we cannot forget the two vehicles and fourteen astronauts who lifted off, but did not come back.
At the same time, the shuttles gave us some of the great moments of space exploration. They sent probes on their long journeys to distant planets. They placed the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit and, had the shuttles not been available to service and maintain this fantastically productive instrument, the early mistakes in the optical train might not have been repairable, choking off a vast stream of data and discovery that kept the wonder of space alive for a generation.
As someone who grew up during the space race, and was unabashedly enthralled with the idea of space exploration, the closure of the shuttle program with no clear replacement space-lift technology on deck, I can't help feeling wistful remembering what our early expectations were. The science fiction of the 60s and 70s assumed that by the late 90s manned expeditions would be exploring the outer planets, supported by permanent bases on the moon and sophisticated space stations. One only needs to watch Stanley Kubrick's classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey to get an idea of where we thought we'd be. As welcome as the space shuttle program was for someone like myself who wanted to see the glory of the space program continue, I and others like me wanted to see more.
Now with the end of the shuttle program, there is talk of commercial interests taking up the problems of living and working in space, with the hope that they will realize the dreams of humanity finally "leaving the cradle." But there is a problem: the space program cannot be discussed in isolation. What is generally forgotten in discussions of the space program is that it was supported by a surge in federal spending in education, particularly in science and math. In an informative piece on the education reforms of the Sputnik era, Rodger W. Bybee of the National Research Council described these reforms in 1998:
In the fall of 1957, the debate about American education reached a turning point. Sputnik resolved the debate in favor of those who recommended greater emphasis on higher academic standards, especially in science and mathematics. Sputnik made clear to the American public that it was in the national interest to change education, in particular the curriculum in mathematics and science. Although they had previously opposed federal aid to schools (on the grounds that federal aid would lead to federal control) the public required a change in American education. After Sputnik the public demand for a federal response was unusually high and Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.
Curriculum reformers of the Sputnik era shared a common vision. Across disciplines and within the educational community, reformers generated enthusiasm for their initiatives. They would replace the current content of topics and information with a curriculum based on the conceptually fundamental ideas and the modes of scientific inquiry and mathematical problem solving. The reform would replace textbooks with instructional materials that included films, activities, and readings. No longer would schools' science and mathematics programs emphasize information, terms, and applied aspects of content. Rather, students would learn the structures and procedures of science and mathematics disciplines.
In my opinion (fortified by my personal experience), these educational reforms were highly successful and generated benefits that went far beyond the space program and its spin-off technology. In the years following Apollo, the students educated through these programs helped make possible the shuttle and other scientific programs and technological achievements.
And yet, in all the discussions of what, if anything, will replace the shuttle fleet, there is little or nothing about educational initiatives on the same scale as the National Defense Education Act that is explicitly aimed at creating the kinds of scientific thinkers needed not only to take us further into the Final Frontier, but to solve other problems that are arguably of greater scale and urgency. I've come to view the primary value of space exploration as an extended science project that has helped to educate millions around the world, and to bring the wonders of science to where we earthbound creatures can see them for ourselves.