New Horizons & SpaceX Remind Us How Space Motivates Young Minds
published during a waxing crescent moon.
10/04/2016

While watching a talk on the New Horizons mission at last week’s International Astronautical Congress, I had an “ah-ha” moment. Harold Weaver, Project Scientist of the mission, was talking about each of the instruments onboard and he mentioned a dust-counting experiment called the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter. Undergraduates at the University of Colorado, Weaver said, had designed the dust counter.

“Oh yeah,” I thought. “I know one of those students.” We were postdocs together, two years before New Horizons rocketed past Pluto at some 14 kilometers per second. My colleague now works at a startup that designs drone sensors for smart agriculture, building innovative methods of ensuring food security.

The switch—from aerospace to agriculture—is perhaps unusual. But less unusual is a transition from a space-related career interest at a very young age, to a technical science career in a different field later in life.

Careers in space science–from astronauts to rover drivers–are innately compelling at a young age. Far more than, say, “Oncologist”, “Psychologist” or “Plant Physiologist.” Yet the same basic skill set in mathematics, problem-solving, and technical writing is needed for any such position.

When’s the last time you saw students running to get seats to an engineering lecture?

Those that stay in space science sometimes reveal their youthful glow. When New Horizons arrived at Pluto, the scientists—mostly grown men and women in their 40s and 50s—were photographed looking decidedly childlike in their euphoria. Queue Alan Stern, Principal Investigator:

stern

Alan Stern and other New Horizons scientists react to first images from Pluto. Credit: NASA

Earlier in the week, when SpaceX chief Elon Musk was preparing to deliver his much-anticipated lecture on colonizing Mars, several thousand people, many of them students, lined up hours in advance. When the doors were finally opened, they ran into the auditorium. Accepting Musk’s celebrity, when’s the last time you saw students running to get seats to an engineering lecture?

Some of the students in attendance may end up among the aerospace engineers or rocket avionics specialists who Musk needs to get to Mars. The vast majority will not. They’ll grow and change and pursue other interests. But last week, Musk, the New Horizons team and other presenters at the Congress stoked enthusiasm for science that will lead many talented people to take off-ramps to other fields.

A student who was inspired by Musk’s plan to generate methane fuel on the surface of Mars may begin to explore the atmospheric chemistry that governs climate change on Earth. A student who was ignited by the additive manufacturing SpaceX uses to create the thrusters for Dragon V2 may become distracted by the possibilities of printing food in the aftermath of disasters.

And a student intoxicated by the cameras onboard New Horizons, snapping pictures of frigid mountains of solid nitrogen on Pluto, may someday suffer through a death in the family from cancer, and put her tools to use diagnosing precursors in MRIs.

A career in space science helps humanity on the merits, feeding its thirst for knowledge and drive for exploration. But for those who select an off-ramp on Earth, the benefits to humanity are limitless.


Joe Mascaro is Program Manager for Impact Initiatives at Planet, a satellite Earth imaging corporation headquartered in San Francisco, CA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not reflect the views of Planet.