SACO – On May 5, 1961, the teachers at my elementary school herded us into the auditorium to witness Alan Shepard’s historic launch. I counted down with the other first graders, our eyes fixed on the black-and-white image of a rocket ship on the portable television perched on the edge of the auditorium stage. The first graders were the lucky ones. We sat cross-legged on the floor right in front of the stage, while the older students languished in seats behind us, too far away from the screen to see more than fuzzy images. That day, America launched its first manned spaceship — Alan Shepard aboard Friendship 7. I’ve been hooked on science ever since.

I grew up in a time marked by violence at home (President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations in 1968) and abroad (over 58,000 American soldiers dead in the Vietnam War). To my generation, the space program alone offered hope and inspiration, which is why people my age view the final launch of the space shuttle program with a sense of loss — for ourselves and future generations.

KEEPING A DIARY

As a young girl, I kept a diary that chronicled the achievement of President Kennedy’s goal of “sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade.”  Forty years later, I can’t remember the boys whose names pepper the pages of the diary, but I will never forget the Apollo 11 mission. I was 15 years old when I scribbled these entries: 

Apollo is half way to the moon.  I have just finished watching live telecast from the space craft.  I feel as if I’m gazing back at history being made. (July 17, 1969).

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin have landed on the moon  (4:30 p.m.).  The first step was taken around 10:00 pm. (July 20, 1969).

It is 8:40AM and with the exception of three hours, I’ve been up since 11:00AM yesterday.  Last night we  received live T.V. coverage of the first step.  Successful blast for earth  – 11:45 p.m. (July 21, 1969).

Apollo shall land this Thursday. God’s speed and a safe return: Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins (July 22, 1969).

My words reflected who I was as an adolescent girl: optimistic and enthusiastic about the challenges ahead. The lunar mission showed me how exciting science could be. It was the reason  I became a scientist and why after retiring, I began a second career teaching chemistry in a public high school. As far as I was concerned, there was no greater goal to which I could aspire.

My generation reaped the rewards of our parents’ investment in space, from the technology behind personal computers and cell phones, to digital imaging softw–are and scratch-proof lenses. The intangible rewards were even greater. We learned that setting a goal is the first step toward achieving it.

Science and engineering careers are rewarding. Hard work creates opportunity.

On July 8, 2011, Shuttle Atlantis roared into the overcast sky on its final mission. It’s touchdown marks the end of America’s shuttle program. Commercial ventures are expected to develop more cost-effective technology to service the International Space Station but for the immediate future, America’s astronauts will hitch rides to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. Thousands of NASA employees have been laid off because they no longer are needed.

What does this teach the next generation about the value of a science and engineering education?

TOMORROW’S ENGINEERS?

Today, so few American students study science, technology, engineering and math (the STEM curriculum), that our economic growth is threatened. The Department of Labor warns that if this trend continues, “more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers in the world will live in Asia.”

Meanwhile, China inspires its young people to pursue science and engineering careers as it tallies up its “firsts” in space (first manned launch, 2003; first space walk, 2006), and advances toward its first manned mission to the moon (scheduled for 2020 — the same year the International Space Station is to be retired.).

Want to inspire the next generation to pursue careers in science and engineering? Let our elementary school children count down on America’s first manned mission to Mars. I hope to count down with them.

– Special to the Telegram