Educating the next generation of space explorers
This summer, NASA marked the end to the country’s human space flight. Yet aspiring astronauts need not entirely diffuse their education and career endeavors. The manned space shuttle fleet’s retirement actually opened wide the doors to U.S.-led space exploration, says Richard L. Crawford, MAEd, a veteran aerospace technology educator and University of Phoenix College of Education graduate.
“While 'manned’ space flight may have temporarily been brought to a halt, the need for engineers and scientists continues to grow,” explains Crawford, an educator associate with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).
In fact, he adds, the nation’s space flight will continue, but without the traditional idea that one of the roughly 500 astronauts ever selected during the life of NASA’s program will continue boarding spacecraft. Rather, there is need for aeronautical/astronautical engineers as NASA continues sending spacecraft on farther interplanetary missions with fewer budget dollars to gather and return analysis data about other planets, moons and asteroids, says Crawford. The need stems from the fact that aerospace engineering draws from a broad spectrum of other engineering disciplines, including thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, systems engineering, chemical engineering, and mechanical, electrical and structural engineering.
The relevance of STEM education
To expand upon unmanned space exploration, Crawford emphasizes the need to expound upon the Challenger Center’s mission to increase the impact of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the nation’s schools.
Crawford, who taught secondary school for three decades, believes students can better prepare for success in colleges and universities, especially in aeronautical/astronautical engineering, if they were fully immersed in STEM classes from grade 7 onward. For Crawford, this means supplementing state-required core classes with introductory and/or advanced courses in mathematics, chemistry, CADD (computer-aided design and drafting), and aeronautical, mechanical or electrical engineering.
“Our challenge is not the teaching of the subjects, rather it is to ignite the burning desire in our secondary students so they will major in the STEM disciplines when they go to the collegiate level.”
Possessing STEM-related degrees specifically will groom the next generation of space explorers to lead the research, technology, development, testing and mission planning to destinations, such as Mars and Saturn, for example, notes Crawford.
“Majoring in aeronautical/astronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or chemical engineering, as well as software and computer engineering will prepare our next generation for careers in space exploration.”
Expanding career paths
Crawford points out the growing career opportunities in other related areas, such as microtechnology.
“By taking our emphasis off “manned” space flight and redirecting budgets, we can work on improvements to microtechnology, micro-aircraft, autonomous aircraft (and) LEO (low Earth orbit) satellites to better study and collect weather data (so) the people of the world can lead lives better warned and protected from Mother Nature’s quirks,” says Crawford. “Our next gen engineers and scientists (also) will be able to improve and deploy a better air traffic control system, and develop aircraft that fly faster, burn less fuel and deposit fewer pollutants in our atmosphere.”
“These career paths are still open to them,” assures Crawford. The key is inspiring young students to pursue the proper curriculum to become tomorrow’s next generation of astronautical and aeronautical engineers, he adds.