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STS-135: Saving the Best for Last?

July 8, 2011

Today marks the end of an era, as STS-135, the final flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, takes off at 11:26am EST. This closes out not only an era of space travel, but of public visibilty for NASA as well. Since John Glenn first orbited the earth in 1962 , the American public has always had one eye looking up at the stars. The famous photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the moon (No, it’s not Neil Armstrong, although you can see him reflected in Buzz’s helmet) symbolized the American dream in action: if we dream it and work hard, we can literally reach new worlds.

Will this photo be as memorable in 30 years?

This high visibility has helped to inspire literally millions of children to investigate STEM fields both in and out of the classroom. The Space Camp program, founded in 1982, has over 500,000 alumni and was so popular that it was even featured as a grand prize for children’s game shows during the 1990s. NASA’s in classroom broadcasts were featured on an episode of the West Wing. The Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. has even built a second museum, the Udvar-Hazy Center, out of expandable hangars to accommodate future expansion.

But without the Space Shuttle, easily the most visible outlet of NASA’s work in the last 20 years, will kids still care about space? Astronauts are engineers and scientists, trained not only in withstanding massive G-forces but in running complex experiments and operating the shuttle itself. Astronauts are living proof that engineers and scientists can be cool.

So what happens now? Without a functional manned space flight program, NASA may be seemingly reduced to an interstellar photo-agency. Sure, it’s nice to look at the pictures, but it’s hard to connect those telescopes taking far-away photos to real people on the ground. Today’s kids don’t just need better STEM education in the classroom, they need real life role models to show them how STEM fits into their world. Many kids say when they grow up they want to be doctors or astronauts; we need to show them that with a little work and a quality STEM education, the seemingly impossible-to-reach—whether a dream or a planet—is close at hand.

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