If you ask astronauts and former astronauts for their opinions on the future of space exploration, you will get a wide variety of answers. Indeed, one can fairly say that for every astronaut, there is an equal and opposite astronaut.

NASA astronaut Sally Ride

The late Dr. Sally Ride was a true American space pioneer. Unlike some astronauts, who fade away after leaving the astronaut corps, she has continued to make valuable  contributions in areas ranging from space education to space policy. Her work on the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee showed keen insights. That’s not to say we always agreed with everything she said, however.

In 2010, Dr. Ride spoke to teachers at the Space Exploration Educators Conference at Space Center Houston. Her presentation, as a former astronaut and the president of Sally Ride Science, was well received. During the question-and-answer session at the end of her presentation, however, one teacher asked  asked about inspiration. It’s fine to talk about astronauts, the teacher said, but most kids are never going to become astronauts. “How do we inspire them?”

Dr. Ride agreed that very few children could grow up to become astronauts but noted there were other career paths at NASA. Those who don’t become astronauts can still get jobs in mission control, monitoring space missions, or at JPL, driving Martian rovers by remote control.

We were dismayed by how quickly Dr. Ride agreed with the assumption that most children will never be able to go into space. It was distressing to hear that students are being told to give up their dreams and accept a substitute career where they merely watch other people explore space  on a television monitor or control robots from a computer.

In our view, however, this is a terrible message to send to the next generation. Children don’t need another incentive to watch television or play video games.

We said so, later in the day, during our Teachers in Space presentation.

Predictably, this upset the Space Frontier Foundation. We were quickly cornered by their “education director” who firmly told us that Dr. Ride was an Important Person and it was not Politically Correct to disagree with her in public.

Stuff and nonsense.

In this case, the equal and opposite astronaut is the late US Navy Captain Charles “Pete” Conrad. Captain Conrad commanded Apollo 12, the second mission to land on the Moon, and was later instrumental in the Delta Clipper Experiment (DC-X) program.

NASA Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad

While working on the DC-X program, Conrad was interviewed for a promotional film. The interviewer asked him what it was like to walk on the Moon, expecting to get a stock answer about the grandeur and historical significance of the event.

Instead, Conrad broke out in a broad grin, showing the famous gap between his front teeth, and replied, “It was super! Bouncing around on the Moon was a blast. Everybody should go!”

We’re with Pete on this one.

Of course, it isn’t NASA’s job to get everyone into space (and Pete knew that). In the future, most people who go into space will not do so through NASA, but through commercial launch providers. It is not yet clear what role NASA will play in supporting the emerging spaceflight industry. It isn’t clear what role Congress will allow NASA to play. It may be that there isn’t much NASA needs to do. But whatever else NASA does in the future, we hope it will help spread the word about the exciting opportunities that await the next generation.

The dream is alive.

Written by Astro1 on August 30th, 2012 , Education, Space Exploration (General)

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