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Replace Kamala Harris with William Shatner to get kids excited about space exploration

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By now everyone has seen the cringy video of Vice President Kamala Harris extoling the excitement of space exploration to a group of kids who were gathered at her residence in Washington. While one supposes she gets points for making the effort, Harris claiming the kids could expect to see the craters of the moon with their own eyes (presumably from the lunar surface and not through a telescope) was unintentionally funny. 

Harris, just like former Vice President Mike Pence before her, is the chair of the National Space Council, a body that brings together the heads of cabinet departments and agency heads to coordinate space policy across the government. Pence viewed his role as running the space council, making sure that everyone was on the same page insofar as space policy was concerned, and lobbying Congress to make certain that policy was implemented and funded. He would not have imagined that he would be cutting videos talking to child actors about space.

The key to getting kids to publicly express excitement about space is not to have some politician do it. Kids are more interested in meeting astronauts, especially those who have actually flown in space. Anyone who has ever been a child at any point during the space age should instinctively know this.

One modest suggestion would be to have someone who is not only a real-life astronaut but played one on TV and in the movies. William Shatner, who recently flew in space on a Blue Origin rocket, played Captain Kirk on “Star Trek” and was quite eloquent about how moved he was by the experience. “I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. I am overwhelmed,” he said.

While Harris’ remarks felt scripted and cringeworthy, Shatner’s seemed sincere and heartfelt. Shatner is experienced in speaking to groups of people, thanks to appearances at “Star Trek” conventions.

Next, choose a group of children who have demonstrated some interest in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. Author and former astronaut trainer Homer Hickam suggests going to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama to recruit them. The Saturn V Hall would be a great venue.

Whether the adult in the room is Shatner or a NASA astronaut, he or she should not talk down to the kids, as Harris seemed to do, or make unrealistic promises about seeing the craters of the moon with their own eyes. He or she should suggest that studying hard and getting the required experience will enhance one’s possibility of flying into space. (Leave aside being a famous celebrity like Shatner or very rich like Jeff Bezos.) The astronaut should talk about the experience of spaceflight, mention what’s going on at both NASA and the commercial sector, and then take questions.

Another great way to get children excited about space exploration is to give them some hands-on experience in the form of a competition. The National Space Society has a list of space-themed competitions that involve design, art, and even writing. NASA runs a similar group of annual competitions. The Biden administration can cut videos about the students participating in these competitions, the better to show how the Artemis Moon then Mars Program excites America’s youth to become scientists and engineers.

The final point cannot be made forcefully enough. If America proposes to go back to the moon, then it should go back to the moon. Otherwise, it will risk raising a generation that feels it’s been lied to and thus has become cynical. If the gentle reader disbelieves this, he or she should ask anyone who came of age during Apollo. They too were promised the moon. Older now, the children of Apollo are still waiting.

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,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Blue Origin Jeff Bezos Mark R. Whittington Mike Pence Moon NASA Space Space exploration White House

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