I was born in the 1960s, the first decade of human spaceflight and also the decade of the first Apollo moon landing. As a kid, this was a time of wonder for me. I remember wanting to learn everything I could about space, especially about Mars -- the next frontier in space exploration. To achieve my dream, I devoured every space book I could get my hands on. I had to find out how I would actually get to Mars.
I am now a planetary scientist and I work on Mars. Well, almost. I work at NASA planning future human journeys to the Red Planet. The Apollo missions were the inspiration behind my aspirations. Apollo not only spawned a wave of space scientists and engineers, it inspired an entire generation in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. The "Apollo Generation" went on to become the foundation of our current tech-savvy society.
But Apollo was almost half a century ago. As it recedes into distant history, a new generation needs to have something big that draws children wholeheartedly toward STEM --something really big, substantial and meaningful. Teachers tell me that space, and within space, Mars, never fails to keep kids riveted in the classroom.
Sending humans to Mars could be our new Apollo. Not the short-lived flags and footprints aspect of Apollo, but its far-reaching, grand-enterprise and giant-leap-for humankind effect. Going to Mars carries the adventure, excitement and risk of traveling to another planet for the first time as it pushes the limits of what humans can do. It also opens the possibility to search for alien life with reasonably good prospects of finding it (if only in the form of microbes). The White House and NASA aim to get us to Mars by 2035, but private initiatives are also in the works that might achieve this goal sooner. Such a goal, if embraced, will produce a new generation of innovative world-changers: "Generation Mars."
But I owe the joy of doing what I love not just to Apollo. I owe it also to reading. Scholastic has a motto that I have lived by: "Read Every Day. Lead a Better Life". This cannot be truer. Reading opened doors to other worlds and ignited my imagination. I read avidly as a kid. Some fiction, of course, like Jules Verne science-fiction novels, but mostly non-fiction, especially picture books with diagrams showing the insides of a spacecraft or the workings of space suits. I believe that kids today must be encouraged to read every day, especially non-fiction books and STEM-themed books. Kids must start young to love science and read books that will help them turn their dreams into reality. This is the foundation upon which "Generation Mars" will be built.
Non-fiction reading is recognized as central in today's Common Core Standards. These standards are the Federal Government's new way of ensuring that language and math are on par for all students across the nation. STEM education in general needs boosting. According to a recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, an international assessment of 4th and 8th graders, the United States continues to lag behind many countries in both math and science. For example, the average science score for American fourth graders ranks sixth out of 45 nations, and 8th graders rank tenth out of 38. Having kids read STEM books that are accessible, exciting and informative will go a long way toward improving STEM performance and the opportunities that children will have in life, including their chances of being part of the journey to Mars.
The time to set off to Mars is indeed now. It's an enterprise that we should be, as President Kennedy once put it when speaking about going to the Moon, unwilling to postpone, lest we are willing to lose our competency in space and on Earth, and tell our kids to look to other nations for inspiration. Educating and inspiring a new generation of children is the most important thing we can aspire to do. It means sharing our hopes and dreams with new hopefuls and dreamers so that progress can be made from where our generation leaves off, and even bigger dreams can be realized. Let's get ready for Mission: Mars and take our kids with us. Let's start them on this journey with a non-fiction STEM book.