Our Progress Is Too Slow

Thinking child with a blackboard in the background
Thinking child with a blackboard in the background

Ten years ago today was a day I will never forget. On a beautiful predawn morning in Florida I was standing on the runway at the Kennedy Space Center awaiting arrival of the Shuttle Columbia and seven of my friends.

I counted the minutes. As an astronaut who had flown seven space missions, I knew where Columbia was by the number of minutes left until the Shuttle would land. I knew what the crew was doing and knew the excitement that permeated their conversation. I expected to be among the first people to welcome them back to earth. Family and friends of the crew stood nearby waiting in anxious anticipation. There would soon be a celebration of hugs and kisses.

Instead of hugs and kisses, there were tears. Columbia never arrived. It broke up over Texas, and my friends onboard were all lost. I cried myself. I assisted the grieving families that morning and spent the next three months helping lead the search for Columbia's debris.

We all knew the risks when we flew. We all believed the benefits and rewards far outweighed the risks. And among the greatest benefits were advancements in science and technology and new understandings of the infinite universe in which we live. We should never forget the crew of Columbia, and the crews of Challenger and Apollo 1 for their sacrifices. And the best way to honor their courage and dedication is to move forward with the human exploration of space, back to the moon and on to Mars. Unfortunately, that is not what is happening today, and the consequences are felt throughout our American society.

Friday, October 4, 1957, is another day I will never forget. It was the day the Soviet Union put Sputnik 1 into orbit, launching the space age and inciting fear across our country that the United States was falling behind the U.S.S.R. in science and technology.

That day shocked our nation and changed our world. Among the impacts it had on our nation was the passage of the National Defense Education Act that poured funding into our schools. The impact it had on me was deepening my interest in space and inspiring the dream of flying in space one day.

In the 12 years that followed, the United States raced to the moon and established itself as the world leader in science, technology, engineering, and math, now called the STEM fields. Generations of students -- beginning with mine -- were not only encouraged and enabled to study STEM fields but also inspired by the incredible accomplishments of NASA.

There is evidence now that, in spite of the perception at the time, the United States was not behind the Russians in STEM education and space technology in 1957. But today, the evidence is very clear and very different. America has fallen behind. In one recent study, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 21st in science and 25th in math proficiency.

This is a call to action that exceeds anything we feared when Sputnik 1 launched 56 years ago this autumn.

Universities, including my alma mater Purdue University, are working hard, hand-in-hand with K-12 schools throughout the country, to improve STEM education. Our states and the federal government are struggling to find solutions. Progress is too slow.

A key piece in this effort is missing. That piece is inspiration.

In 1957 when Sputnik launched, it was followed by the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, and selection of the Mercury Seven astronauts in 1959. By May of 1961, the United States had launched men into space, and NASA also launched the imaginations of young people. We were inspired in the STEM fields by astronauts like Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong, scientists like Wernher von Braun, and engineers like Gene Kranz who became household names. American technology was exploring the unknown, going where no one had gone before. Can you remember the first photo you saw of our Earth from space? I can. Many young people like me were inspired to be part of it all, and many more were inspired to explore, perhaps not space, but their own endless possibilities.

In the 1970's, NASA designed a Shuttle that could take men and women into space, return them to earth, and then launch again. In 1980, I became a part of our space program when I was selected as an astronaut in NASA's ninth class as it prepared for the first Space Shuttle mission.

The Shuttle placed satellites in space that changed the way we work and live here on earth. The Shuttle released telescopes that continue to give us glimpses to nearly the beginning of time. The Shuttle played the key role in building the International Space Station, among the most incredible manmade structures ever imagined.

Today our Space Shuttles are retired and in museums. Their work is done. Americans continue to have a presence on the Space Station, but we are ferried back and forth by the Russian Space Agency. Private industry is being encouraged to take the leadership in U.S. low earth orbit space flight while NASA considers projects focused on deep space. Meanwhile, a recent report from the National Research Council, a division of the National Academies of Sciences, says our nation lacks a clear consensus on what NASA should do next, and NASA finds itself in a position where it is trying to lease or sell facilities and equipment at Kennedy Space Center where so much history has taken place.

Human exploration of our solar system is a next logical step in our unquenchable quest to understand. Our nation should dare to charge NASA with specific goals toward furthering human exploration of space, on a demanding but achievable schedule, and commit itself to providing the appropriate resources. The exciting work of exploring the moon and deeper space will inspire young people across our country to study science, technology, engineering, and math and challenge them to lead the world in technology and innovation in the 21st century.

Jerry Ross is a former astronaut who supported the U.S. Space Shuttle program from before the first launch through the last. He set and now shares with Franklin Chang-Diaz the world record for number of space launches - seven -- and he ranks third in the world for number of space walks -- nine. His new book is Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA's Record-Setting Frequent Flyer, published by Purdue University Press.