Engage the Public

When I was a young man, I followed all the missions of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo series as well as the unmanned spacecraft like Voyager. In those days, average people got a chance to play with all the scientific instruments and were often central to the planning process of scientific advancement. If that were not true, Edwin Hubble would not have even had a chance to participate.

Today, when NASA and others “reach out,” it is in a diminutive way. Usually, it involves some cute demo for non-scientists, visiting lecturers to “educate the public,” or some contest like “Name That Crater” or let your name orbit the Moon in some microchip. No matter what the departments of planetary sciences do, it should always involve the general population in some way. There should always be some opportunity for the average Joe to visit a factory or work on a contract to construct items for the mission. Every American deserves the chance to leave his or her footprint on an American adventure. It should not just be reserved for eggheads, those with connections or those privileged few.

Albeit, it is important for people to contribute in major ways to solving geological riddles and add to the knowledge base about planets, Moons or asteroids. Somehow though, we need more opportunity for technicians, physical science experts and others who are not in the elite circles. So, when I say that NASA should “reach out,” I mean that they should create incubators all over the country where smart people without Ph.D.s also can contribute in meaningful ways like they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

It is my hope that the Moon-Mars panel has included a variety of people outside of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Yale and, yes, the University of Arkansas to contribute to the Moon- Mars initiative. With every project centralized at the university, while efficient and pure of defects, it lacks the American quality. That pre-NASA quality that was present prior to 1958, when Air Force test pilots and a little guy in his garage suddenly made a significant contribution, is currently missing from the space development that many people consider to be “excellent.”

The Moon-Mars Commission implied that they intended to launch efforts in that way. To date, I have seen only business as usual with an elite cadre continuing to screen out, in a systematic way, all the talent that doesn’t fit their logic profiles. This approach may remain the same for people who map martian valleys or geological strata, but it has to change for everyone else.

Norm North