Each day, NASA spacecraft probe the universe, study our solar system and examine our Earth. They travel to Pluto and to distant asteroids. They study the sun to help predict solar storms. They work on unraveling questions about the changing nature of our planet and our climate. Together with other nations, we have an ongoing human presence in space that is setting the foundation for long-duration human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. NASA’s probes continue to reach far, they reach wide and they reach out for answers and new insights. The results are often astounding; they inspire us to keep discovering, to go further, and to challenge what we know. As we consider the future of NASA and America’s space program, we need to reach out and engage our neighbors, our school children and other nations in the same spirit of discovery and exploration that we bring to NASA’s science and exploration programs.

Engaging Students

The challenge is clear. Our future strength as a nation will rest, in large part, on scientific and technical talent. NASA and the nation’s aerospace enterprise are well-positioned to contribute to the nation’s goals for enhancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, especially through hands-on science and engineering activities. Hands-on science and engineering activities also foster the skills needed to address a significant demand in our nation’s aeronautics and space organizations for engineers and scientists who can integrate complex systems. The National Academies report, “Building a Better Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration,” said: “When it comes to developing systems engineering and project management skills, there is ultimately no substitute for hands-on training.”

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics echoed this sentiment in its report, “Working Together to Build the Aerospace Workforce for Tomorrow”: “A passion for aerospace needs to be regenerated throughout the workforce, its employers, and the nation itself. One proven path to do this is to emphasize hands-on programs that allow budding engineers and scientists to experience the joy of creating solutions.”

NASA science activities have a history of involving graduate students and younger members of the work force. These activities include the Explorer science satellite program and flight research programs such as high-altitude balloons and sounding rockets. Many of these projects allow a student to see a space project to completion and to participate in the full process of defining, designing, developing and operating a mission and then analyzing the mission data.

Hands-on involvement in NASA programs is even reaching students at the high-school level. In my own district in Southern Arizona, the Phoenix Mars mission at the University of Arizona (U of A) allowed one student to become part of the Robot Arm Camera Team while she was a student at Tucson High School. Her involvement with Phoenix continued and during her second year at the U of A she worked on Phoenix education and outreach activities. Her work and that of her colleagues attracted a mathematics, physics and economics student from
High School
who asked the
team for a volunteer position and ended up as a documentarian, helping to track data on the lander and ensure that critical information wasn’t deleted from the onboard memory.

represents my first foray into the real world of science,” he wrote. “My experience has been nothing short of incredible.”

These are but a few examples of how the impact of hands-on experience can shape a life and promote a bright future for
‘s space program.

Funding for programs that enable hands-on science and engineering have declined, as have the opportunities they provide for engaging students. The NASA Authorization Act of 2008 authorized NASA’s science programs to allocate additional funds to support suborbital science programs. This is a good starting point. As chair of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, I will be working with my fellow subcommittee members to examine NASA’s existing hands-on science and engineering activities and to consider whether there are further steps that can be taken. It is critical that we enable NASA to make hands-on experience and learning accessible to those who will take our nation and our space program as far as their dreams and capabilities will allow – our children and students.

Engaging Other Nations

As we reach out to engage America’s students, we also need to continue reaching wide in the spirit of peaceful engagement so clearly and elegantly declared for NASA in the original Space Act of 1958 (unamended): “Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results, thereof.”

NASA’s programs have amply fulfilled the spirit of the original Act through both major mission programs such as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the international space station, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn and through a host of small and medium missions and data application projects. Since NASA’s creation, the agency reports that it has undertaken more than 4,000 international agreements. And while international cooperation can sometimes create cost, schedule and complexity challenges, the benefits to science, technology and international relations cannot be underestimated.

Engaging other nations can accomplish far more than fulfilling our dreams and goals for space exploration. Properly structured, cooperative activities can enhance the strength of our nation. The societal challenges we face – climate change, natural disasters and the availability of clean water, energy and other natural resources – know no boundaries. These challenges demand multinational solutions, and space activities will be a major contributor to those solutions. America faces its own challenges in ensuring our national security, economic strength, and scientific and technological competitiveness. International engagement, including in space research and commerce, is imperative: According to a recently released report of the National Academies, “Beyond ‘Fortress
‘: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World”: “American security and prosperity now depend on maintaining active engagement with worldwide developments in science and technology.”

I think we all know how much the space arena has changed since NASA began partnering with the small number of nations that were active in space in the earlier years of the space program. The growth in the capabilities of spacefaring nations such as India, China, Brazil and Argentina bring new opportunities for cooperation and engagement as well as new challenges and complexities. That is why I strongly supported the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, which included provisions for NASA to provide U.S. leadership, and other relevant federal agencies, with a cooperative international Earth observations-based research program and to lead a long-term international initiative, including confidence-building measures as appropriate, to expand human and robotic exploration of the solar system. I will be working with the subcommittee to continue to examine carefully how we can ensure America’s effectiveness in leading and shaping international engagement in space to fulfill our goals for exploration, to help address our societal challenges and to ensure our national strength and prosperity.

One area in particular that I think worthy of increased attention is the issue of “rules of the road” for safe access to and operations in space and for return from space to Earth. Events such as the Chinese anti-satellite (A-Sat) test and the recent collision between an Iridium communications satellite and a spent Russian spacecraft have emphasized the need for this dialogue on space traffic management. The NASA Authorization Act of 2008 included a provision for the NASA administrator to initiate discussions in consultation with other agencies of the federal government and with representatives of other spacefaring nations on the development of a framework for space traffic management. I will be working closely with the subcommittee to examine whether any additional actions can be taken to help ensure the safe access to and utilization of space among nations.

The items I have highlighted represent only a fraction of the issues and opportunities that we will face in the coming year. In my role as chair of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, I look forward to helping to ensure that NASA reaches far, reaches wide and reaches out so that Americans can see, feel and understand the enormous benefits that our space program brings to our children, our economy and security, and to our relations with other nations.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) is the chair of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee.