One of the most memorable experiences in my life happened during my first high school cross country race. I was excited to compete and eager to show that I could beat every other person to the finish line. As the starter’s gun fired I began running near full speed. I felt amazing, and I just knew that I was going to finish in first place and win the race!
For those who are unfamiliar with high school cross country, each race is 5000 meters (roughly 3.1 miles). At the beginning I stayed in the pack of the top runners, however after the first mile I began to feel tired. I couldn’t maintain the blazing pace that I started out with. As I progressively slowed down, more and more people continued to pass me. I ended up being one of the last runners to cross the finish line. That day I learned a very crucial lesson: not every race that we run is a sprint.
When it comes to the space race the United States is still learning that lesson the hard way. News of Sputnik launching into orbit in 1957 acted as the starter’s gun, and we as proud Americans sprinted full speed into space ready to prove that no other country could match our ingenuity. We dedicated immense resources ( up to 4.5 % of the federal budget) in a rush to land humans safely on the moon. By 1969 we became the first and only country to reach that milestone. Unfortunately, we failed to realize that the space race is actually a marathon, not at sprint. We’ve been moving at a slower and slower pace since the moon landings.
Our haste to beat Russia and ever other nation to the moon made us shortsighted. We were so focused on getting to there and back that we didn’t take the time to develop the systems or the culture that would actually keep us in the space race for the long haul. The space technology that we developed was costly and inefficient. The high price of space travel caused us to become uninterested in going further. As a country we stopped caring about pushing humanity’s presence deeper into the cosmos. Right now we can barely muster the energy, resources, or cultural willpower to stay in low Earth orbit. Instead of continuing the race and making full strides towards colonizing Mars or another planetary body, we’ve been jogging slowly around the same circle for almost 50 years.
I think that the United States is capable of re-claiming its place as the front runner in the space race. However, we have to change our nation’s perspective on the importance of both scientific innovation and space exploration. It all starts with how we, the people of STEM, reach out to our communities and inspire the next generation of science and space enthusiasts. We have to instill in students the abilities to work together and develop long term solutions to complicated problems. We also have to show that now more than ever our technological and philosophical advancement depends on our ability to establish and maintain human presence in outer space. Most importantly, we have to find ways to make STEM and space as cool to the American public as it is to us enthusiasts.
I wholeheartedly believe that we’re starting to take the right steps towards the revival of the American space industry. Private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing new and exciting means of making space travel both efficient and cost effective.What gives me the most hope, however, is when I come across programs like High Tech High, a school in California which actively encourages students to think about the technical challenges of space colonization, or groups such as STEMedia and The Mars Generation that produce amazing content to inspire students on a national level to pursue their STEM and space related dreams. Positive cultural influences like these help ensure that this generation, or perhaps the next, will have the right mindset to continue humanity’s marathon run towards the stars without need to slow down due to financial or cultural fatigue.
Before we can start thinking about planting American flags on other worlds, we still have to overcome the slump that we’ve been in. That will only happen if we can change our nation’s attitude towards the importance of scientific and space exploration. After almost half a century it’s time to get to work and make America space again!
This piece comes to us from one of our amazing community members, Aaron Shepard. His bio is below, be sure to check out his amazing website and if you would like to work with us you can email us here!
Aaron Shepard (@spacecadetshep) is an engineering student, NASA funded robotics researcher, and an aspiring astronaut! He is passionate about advocating for STEM and space exploration to students from all backgrounds. Outside of space and STEM Aaron loves tinkering in his work room, running, Latin dancing with his wife, and scuba diving.