UPDATE: After traveling 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles, the Mars rover Curiosity landed successfully in a crater early Monday morning. Over the next two years, the rover will travel the crater floor, scooping up soil and looking for signs of life. (AP Photo/NASA Artists Rendering)

NASA’s next Mars rover Curiosity is on course to land Monday. This car-sized mobile laboratory will again investigate the tantalizing question: Could the Red Planet ever have supported life?

When NASA’s first rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on Mars in 2004, engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California went wild. Outlasting a life expectancy of 90 Martian days, Spirit beamed images and data back to Earth for more than six years. Opportunity continues to do so.

A single event — the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957 — ignited the space race, woke everyone up to the importance of science and technology, and led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Sputnik was the size of a beach ball, but it spurred American engineers and scientists to land the first human on the moon, achieving a pinnacle of science and engineering. When Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface July 20, 1969, the world was captivated.

But today I wonder if the excitement of space exploration is over?

According to a National Science Board 2010 report, only 5 percent of college graduates in the United States major in engineering, compared with 12 percent of European students and 20 percent of those in Asia. Recent research reveals U.S. students lag internationally in science education, making them less prepared for the global workforce.

Unfortunately in spite of the technological revolution, engineering is still undervalued in the U.S. Many kids dream of being sports stars or rock musicians, but astronauts – not so much. Part of the problem is they lack engineering heroes and so are unlikely to pursue the field. For example, how many people know that that after Chile’s 2010 mining accident, it was NASA with Chilean engineers who built the escape capsule that pulled 33 miners up to safety?

We need a new Sputnik moment.

We need the vision, engineering ingenuity, and skills that enabled John Glenn to pilot our nation’s first orbital mission. We need to motivate our kids to emulate innovators like Dr. Rafat Ansari who was inspired to be a scientist after he saw astronauts walk on the moon. As a NASA researcher studying particles in liquids, he saw that his work might help detect cataracts. Now his device is being adapted to identify other eye diseases, diabetes and possibly Alzheimer’s. A silicon chip developed for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope makes breast cancer screening less painful, less scarring, and less expensive than a traditional biopsy.

The key to innovation is introducing children to engineering design skills that will motivate them to use their math and science knowledge to solve real problems. When government and business leaders worry about our preeminence in innovation, I say let’s introduce engineering in schools and science museums nationwide.

For me, the romance of space will never be over. As a boy in Greece, I spent summers stargazing and fishing in the Bay of Corinth. When a teacher encouraged me to build on my fascination with the sea, I made a device that used solar power to take the salt out of seawater. I loved the thrill of creating something with my hands, of doing something with science. When I was appointed in 2007 to NASA’s Advisory Council, I realized two dreams – becoming an engineer and working for NASA to improve engineering education. I only hope there are many boys and girls out there today who have similar dreams.

Tags: Innovation

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  • pam

    Great point! Do we need to create a Sputnik moment, or can inspire teachers to include more STEM in their classes (or both)?

  • Rigoberto R Escobar

    We could have a thousand Sputnik moments but as long as we have an education system that separates the growing poor and under represented class from the ever shrinking privileged, wealthy and politically connected classes then nothing will be done to make engineering and the sciences important in America again.

  • Imran Nasrullah

    I believe that our societal disinterest is based on several factors:
    1. a society that is largely ignorant of science, math, the scientific method.
    2. a society that is more interested in being entertained, than informed and curious.
    3. a society that glorifies the rebel and ridicules the educated.
    4. a society that disdains science in favor of religious extremism.

  • Info

    I wonder if some of the received wisdom we get about America being
    behind in science and engineering should be discussed with greater
    nuance. I have read lately that here are actually more Ph.D’s in some science areas than there are jobs or academic postings. Also I remember in college in the 90’s hearing endlessly about the lack of career prospects for aerospace engineers, though I don’t know if that’s still the case. At any rate, I think that solutions to our STEM problems can be more fruitfully approached from a structural viewpoint, instead of throwing up our hands and complaining about the character weaknesses of today’s distracted youth.

    For whatever reason, a lot of kids are turned off to math in school. It makes them feel stupid and seems to have little relevance to their lives. There is still a strong belief among some (students and teachers, both) that math is an inborn talent, which only a few people have, an attitude which short-circuits motivation very effectively.

    Also I think we space-enthusiasts need to be honest with ourselves. The trips to the moon were largely undertaken as part of the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, and not out of some noble in-born human desire for new frontiers. Nowadays our Apollo-scale cultural enteprise is an endless, nebulous War on Everything, a huge drain on our society’s resources, though it does I suppose provide a few technological spin-offs of its own (drones, artificial limbs, surveillance technology).

  • Gene

    Imagination is the infectious theme to turn young minds to space and engineering