Why Mars? For Today’s Students, Exploring Mars Represents So Much More Than The Red Planet Itself

For as long as we can remember, the space industry has created moments that have inspired, and often defined, a generation: The first human-piloted space flight, the Moon landing, the Apollo 13 crisis, the Space Station, the beginning and end of the Shuttle era, the Apollo, Challenger and Columbia tragedies, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, New Horizons, the introduction and continued growth of commercial space companies, and so much more. In addition to providing those moments, I believe the community also represents the perseverance of the human spirit. Even after the worst of times, like the loss of the Challenger crew, it came back with stronger, more innovative plans.

Now the next generation is looking for that inspiration, dreaming about how they will change the world and what they will do to benefit mankind. For today’s students, that motivation and inspiration is Mars. These students know they are the ones who will step foot on the Red Planet. They will also be the ones who find cures for previously untreatable diseases, identify new energy sources, design new aircraft, improve our ability to care and feed for a growing population, just for starters. They are the future of our industries, our economy, our planet and beyond. These students are the Martians of Tomorrow. This is why Mars is so important. It’s more than the Red Planet itself. It represents a potential-defining moment for a new generation. This is what today’s students are working toward – to be the leaders, innovators and explorers that will strengthen our country and our world.

In order to reach these goals, the Martians of Tomorrow will need to be the most technologically advanced, innovative generation we have ever known. But there are reasons for concern. A report of international math and science assessments indicates that U.S. students continue to rank behind many other advanced industrial nations. Research shows that as a student advances into middle school, opinions on science change drastically. One-third of students lose interest in STEM subjects in fourth grade and by eighth grade that number jumps to half. This means the STEM pipeline is narrowed by 50 percent by the time students enter 9th grade. As the STEM pipeline is shrinking, STEM occupations are projected to grow significantly compared to non-STEM occupations, and employers will struggle to find truly qualified candidates. In addition, there is increasing concern that students lack the basic STEM knowledge required in even non-STEM industries.

All of these factors have a negative impact on students’ ability to succeed in our competitive workforce. Not only is a strong STEM foundation critical to the future success of today’s students, but it is also imperative for the continued growth of our industries and economy.

But we can all help. We can all play a part. It will take a global commitment from parents, teachers, community members, education leaders, STEM and non-STEM professionals and organizations to address these issues and provide inspiration and encouragement for today’s students on their journey to becoming tomorrow’s STEM leaders. 

These students need our support so that they can exceed these expectations and create their own defining moment. This is why Mars represents so much more than the Red Planet itself. It can define a new generation. Join the #MartiansOfTomorrow movement here.

Lance Bush is President and CEO of Challenger Center, a leading STEM education organization that inspires, engages, and prepares today’s students for the future through innovative science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs.

This piece is part of a special op-ed series, curated in partnership with Explore Mars, in which contributors from diverse fields such as science, education, policy, business and culture answer a simple question: “Why Mars?” For more, follow the links below or visit exploremars.org.