An Astronaut Who's Down-to-Earth

Here in the United States we are in the midst of a hotly contested Presidential primary season, so it's no surprise that we hear so much talk about what the government can - or could, or should, or would - do for people to help them in their everyday lives. That's certainly true in the non-profit sector, where we see those needs in our communities and feel the pressure to fund initiatives to address them.

And so I offer this as a good news story about the potential benefits to non-profits, and the people we serve, from the U.S. government's investment over many years in NASA.

What does our space program have to do with non-profits?

On the surface, not much. But I could not have been more impressed and interested in learning how the work that NASA does has real implications for what we in the non-profit sector are doing.

I gained this insight at the World Cornerstone Conference of the International Women's Forum, held this year in Tel Aviv. Convened by a unique organization comprised of more than 6,300 women from 35 nations who are dedicated to advancing better leadership in their own countries and around the world, the conference, held annually, provides members with opportunities to learn about the change drivers in the host location and also to look broadly at world issues.

I was especially captivated by a session entitled SPACE: Above and Beyond, featuring NASA Astronaut Catherine "Cady" Coleman, PhD, a chemist with more than 4,330 hours in space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and the International Space Station; Inbal Kreiss, Deputy General Manager of the Space Division, Israel Aerospace Industries; and Deganit Paikowsky, PhD, Senior Researcher at the Yuval Neeman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security at Tel Aviv University and Consultant to the Space Committee of Israel's National Council for Research and Development.

Most of us have no concept of the many innovations coming out of the space program that are now part of our everyday lives. (For a brief history of real world benefits of NASA spinoffs - from enhanced baby food to land mine removal to pollution remediation - see this link.)

Coleman shared with us some of the experimental agricultural work, including growing vegetables in a weightless environment, being done on the Space Station (think the movie The Martian!); but this is not science fiction - the implications are relevant here on Earth as so many of us in the non-profit sector look to address the issue of food insecurity.

Coleman also spoke of the benefits to all of us that come from a systemic commitment to STEM, something that resonates with me because of the work many of our member Junior Leagues - from Palo Alto to Mobile to Phoenix - have done to encourage children, and especially girls for whom women like Coleman are role models, to pursue STEM education. It's important not just to the space program but to our country's competitiveness.

So leaving Tel Aviv I felt more hopeful about the potential for positive change in our world and in the non-profit sector through the application of STEM skills and, yes, the kind of government spending that spurs innovation in everyday technologies that help people live better lives.