Making space exploration cool again

Making space exploration cool again
© Getty Images

A recent Harris Poll, sponsored by Lego, charted what kids in the United States, the UK, and China want to be when they grow up. The results were both illuminating and sobering, as Ars Technica reported.

In China, the job of astronaut topped the list at 56 percent. In the United States and the UK, astronaut was at the bottom at 11 percent. A YouTube blogger topped the list of preferred jobs in the two English speaking countries.

Another polling result to consider was documented by Roger Launius. He notes that the only time that Americans believed that the Apollo program was worth the cost was at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing and then at 53 percent. The numbers fell soon after and then didn’t really recover until the 1990s, long after the last Americans left the moon.

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Fast forward 50 years after the first moon landing. How does the new Artemis moon program avoid the fate of Apollo, initial popularity followed by a big fade in the polls? How does space exploration become cool again?

Fortunately, NASA and the current effort to return to the moon have certain advantages that the space agency of 50 years ago and Apollo lacked.

Apollo had a specific goal, land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth by the end of this decade. Apollo 11 accomplished this goal in a grand and inspiring manner. Unfortunately, Apollos 12 through 17 seemed to many to be superfluous, very expensive victory laps. Little support existed to follow up with a lunar base, much less missions to Mars.

Artemis has a more ambitious goal to not only return to the moon, but also to establish the base and then go to Mars. The rationale is understood from the beginning. The next moon landing, the first in 55 years if it meets the current schedule, will be considered just the beginning and not the end.

NASA today is a completely different institution than it was in 1969. Fifty years ago, the space agency was a huge, self-contained institution that developed everything internally, with the help of aerospace contractors. The Harvard Business Journal recently noted that today’s NASA is at the center of a network of organizations. The network includes not only international space agencies, such as the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization, but also commercial companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. 

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NASA’s alliance with commercial partners is the key to making space exploration cool again. NASA may be seen as stodgy and bureaucratic, though that is changing under the space agency’s young, reformist leader, NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineNASA reveals new spacesuits for next moon mission Hillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference NASA targeting early 2020 for first manned SpaceX mission MORE. However, SpaceX CEO Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference NASA targeting early 2020 for first manned SpaceX mission Hillicon Valley: Senate Intel report urges action to prevent 2020 Russian meddling | Republicans warn Microsoft of 'urgent' Huawei threat | Court rules FBI surveillance violated Americans' rights MORE and Blue Origin CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosWashington Post publisher: 'Corrosive' to liken unfavorable news to 'fake news' Trump joins Twitch platform Freedom of the press under fire in Colorado MORE are seen as rock stars in the space world. The engineers and other employees of the commercial space companies are young, vibrant people, relatable to Americans who would like to have something to believe in. NASA is getting the message as it is showcasing its younger, diverse workforce in its education materials.

The NASA International Industrial Alliance that seeks to send human explorers beyond low-Earth orbit presents many choices for people who want to be part of that effort. Young people who think that being a YouTube star is a sound career path, may be inspired to look again at the opportunities that returning to the moon presents. Becoming an astronaut, a scientist or an engineer takes a lot of harder work and study that making YouTube videos. However, young folks should realize that nothing wonderful can be achieved without difficulty and hard work. The goal must matter enough to a young person to justify years in school.

The real key to making space exploration cool again is to present a vision of how the world will be a better place when people live and work on the moon and undertake voyages of discovery to Mars and beyond. People did not realize at the time of Apollo how great the first missions to the moon would be. The hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the moon landing suggests that many do now.

Artemis can usher in a richer, more peaceful human civilization than the current one. The more people realize that fact, the cooler space exploration will become.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”