Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Touching Down and Springing Up

Last Saturday was a great day to be a Space Grant Director on the Purdue campus.  The weather was a wonderful and warm backdrop for a range of delightful activities: speaking with Purdue astronauts and their families; examining artifacts from the Barron Hilton Flight and Space Exploration Archives in the Purdue Libraries’ Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center; smelling the mulch and straw and manure; listening to the bleats of the lambs…


Although I grew up an East Coast city person, I recognize that I have now spend nearly 30 years attending, living and working on agricultural campuses.  April 12, in addition to being the date of the Astronaut Forum, was also the date of Spring Fest, a celebration of agricultural and life sciences and their role in the life of Purdue and Indiana.   It’s no longer surprising to me to see people in Holstein-themed aprons or booths that demonstrate milking cows, shearing sheep, or crop management.  It’s part of the life of a comprehensive land grant university. And, at the risk of revisiting a controversial topic, it’s why I don’t see adding an “A” (for agriculture) to STEM.   Agriculture is an application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, in much the same way astronautics is.  We don’t add an extra letter in the acronym to describe the specific problems of human spaceflight.  Keeping Gene Cernan alive on the moon, or helping Drew Feustel repair the Hubble Space Telescope, involves solving problems in a range of science disciplines, using the language of mathematics, and the skills and products of engineering and technology.  I could also talk about harvesting high-yield alfalfa to keep my herds healthy through long winter months.

What do we learn from human spaceflight? What do we get out of it?  This was a question posed to the astronauts during the Public Forum held on Saturday evening?  There were lots of sentiments expressed—not just in the cold analysis of economics (all the money spent on human spaceflight are spent to develop technologies and employ people here on Earth: it’s too expensive to launch money), but in the passion of people who want to share a perspective that has transformed their lives.  As Charlie Walker (a native of Bedford, IN) stated, human spaceflight is more than just people and technology—it is the change in perspective and value that comes from “viewing our home planet from beyond”.   Spaceflight is also about inspiration—“inspiration to change people’s lives” (Drew), to “inspire them with passion to do what has been left undone” (Gene).

Video of Astronaut Public Forum

Perhaps more important than what we get out of human spaceflight is what goes into it, and that is education—particularly STEM education.  Some people (like me) went into STEM specifically wanting to be an astronaut, but ended up somewhere else.  Some started out somewhere else, and ended up as astronauts.  As Mark Brown (a native of Valparaiso, IN) put it, “we were willing to take a chance,” to see where the education would lead.  The common feature, though, is a curious, interested approach to education: curiosity, in Gene’s words, “is the essence of human existence”.  We should do this more, and early, and often, according to Gary Payton, who continues to be involved in STEM education (at the US Air Force Academy):  “wrap [kids’ lives] around STEM, in the 6th – 8th grades.  STEM is critical for the nation’s future.”  STEM also involves a process of how to “think about things and go do them,” according to Loren Shriver: “you’ve got to put it all together and think on your own”. 

Astronauts and agriculture?  I think it’s interesting that Charlie, Drew, Gary, Loren, and Mark all grew up in Midwestern towns strongly influenced by agriculture: farming, lumber, and farm equipment manufacturing were frequent themes. And from these backgrounds, through Purdue, all sprung from earth and touched down once more on the Space Shuttle, one of the most amazing engineering vehicles ever built.  As I’ve said before, and repeated to myself while walking across campus last Saturday… It’s all STEM to me.