One of the most frequently cited problems facing those who build and rely on space systems is a receding pool of engineering talent, a function of declining interest among young people in math and science.
It is a troubling trend whose impact will be felt increasingly as the current generation of aerospace engineers retires. This has led the U.S. Air Force and its contractors to pursue a variety of programs designed to get the space bug to bite students of all ages.
A number of senior military and NASA officials have expressed frustration in recent years with the difficulty of attracting young people to careers in space. During an April 2002 interview, for example, Air Force Gen. Ralph “Ed” Eberhart, then serving as commander of Air Force Space Command, said he was disappointed to see a decline in the number of students pursuing aeronautical and astronautical degrees.
“I’ve seen a survey that when you ask elementary school students what they are most interested in, you get two subjects: dinosaurs and space,” said Eberhart, who retired in 2005. “So someplace between elementary school and degree time, we lose these people.”
Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, said in an April interview that Eberhart’s observation still holds true today. Space Command has worked to address this issue through a program called High Frontier Adventures. The program, developed in part by the U.S. Space Foundation of Colorado Springs, Colo., was launched this past February by Gen. Lance Lord, who retired as commander of Air Force Space Command a month later.
The High Frontier Adventures program counts towards a community outreach requirement of four hours a year for credentialed space officers and enlisted personnel.
Under the program, space officials visit students ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade , Klotz said. Rather than give a military recruiting pitch during these visits, the officers focus on the scientific and economic importance of space to “bring home to the students how ubiquitous and pervasive space has become to the American way of life,” he said.
“It’s [intended] to spark and kindle and nurture an interest in space writ large,” Klotz said.
In a February visit with fifth and sixth graders at a school near Space Command’s Colorado Springs headquarters of Peterson Air Force Base, Lord showed footage of the launch of NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft aboard a Delta 2 rocket, discussed the role of math and science in preparing for a launch, and talked about the relationship between planets and the Sun.
According to a February Air Force news release, Lord told the students “if you’re not in space, you’re not in the race,” a line he frequently used to close speeches to industry audiences and interviews with reporters.
Dave Shingledecker, vice president for strategic systems at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, Calif., agreed that more needs to be done to sow interest among young students in math that can lead to a career in aerospace engineering . Through a program called Math Moves U, Raytheon has enlisted professional athletes and others for events designed to teach math in a fun setting.
In a February event in El Segundo , the company brought BMX stunt bicyclist Dave Mirra and videogame designer Mark Skaggs in to talk about the role of math in their careers. In one exercise, the students calculated the trajectory needed to safely jump Mirra’s bike over six classmates who were lying on the ground. The students also had the chance to try on space suits and control a model of a Mars rover, according to Sabrina Steele, a Raytheon spokeswoman.
BAE Systems also has worked to stoke an interest in space and engineering in young people, according to Marshal Ward, vice president and general manager of space systems at BAE Electronics & Integrated Solutions of Nashua, N.H. The company has worked with the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) high school robotics competition since 1989, and has sponsored events for the past four years, he said.
The company also rotates select young employees through a variety of positions to give them the experience needed to serve as space leaders, said Ward, a retired Air Force major general who served in posts including director of requirements at Air Force Space Command.
When Ward joined BAE in 2001 after retiring from the Air Force , he began taking five to six young employees to the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs each year to man the company’s booth in the conference exhibition hall. To qualify for the trip, the employees were required to write essays on why they want to be involved with space.
The benefit of bringing young employees to the symposium is apparent upon their return, Ward said.
“They get very motivated, and word of mouth spreads,” Ward said. “They come back and teach others — they are leaders amongst their peers.”