Space Explorers Splash Down in Seattle, Try to Spark Childrens’ Imaginations

9/16/08Follow @xconomy

Space exploration doesn’t captivate the public imagination like it once did—and small wonder, considering that the Space Shuttle is limited to endless circles in low-earth orbit, a mere 250 miles up. So now the small group of people who have had the privilege of looking down on Earth are doing something about it. They are going on a barnstorming tour of Washington state to whip up excitement among schoolchildren about seeking discoveries beyond this planet’s atmosphere.

The Association of Space Explorers started its 21st Planetary Congress yesterday at the Sheraton in downtown Seattle, marking only the third time the group has met in the U.S. The group includes 320 astronauts and cosmonauts from 32 countries who have been on missions in space. About 60 of them will tell stories about the wonders of space to an estimated 50,000 children in grades K-12 across the state tomorrow. To give their talks some added oomph, they won’t just talk about the Apollo glory days, but plan to grab the kids’ attention with an issue currently on a lot of minds—global climate change.

“It’s an eye-opening experience to see the parts of the atmosphere of the earth that are about the width of your little finger,” says John Fabian, the co-president of the space exploration group, and an astronaut who flew on the shuttles Challenger and Discovery in the mid-’80s. “It’s fragile, and we need to protect it.”

Fabian, 69, a resident of Port Ludlow, WA, is leading the charge. He’s one of seven Washington residents who have flown in space. The local contingent also includes shuttle astronauts Bonnie Dunbar, president of the Museum of Flight, George (Pinky) Nelson, John O. Creighton, Wendy Lawrence, and Apollo astronauts Bill Anders and Richard Gordon.

I must say they have their work cut out. My most vivid memory of the U.S. space program is the explosion of the Challenger shuttle in 1986, when I was in fifth grade. The No. 2 memory: Columbia’s disintegration over Texas five years ago. NASA’s big successes came before I was born—and well before today’s schoolkids came along—and it shows in public support. One telling statistic: the space program accounted for about 4.4 percent of the federal budget in the peak years of Apollo, a figure that’s dwindled to about 0.5 percent in the current federal budget, Dunbar says.

The public doesn’t appear very motivated to back space exploration. Even during the heat of a presidential election, neither major candidate has had a lot to say about the right future direction for the nation’s space program, Fabian says.

Still, the group has rounded up prominent sponsors for its new mission, including Boeing, Microsoft, the University of Washington, the Museum of Flight, and the Suquamish Tribe. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels appeared at the opening ceremony, welcoming the astronauts, and cracking a joke about Starbucks’ desire to open new stores on other planets (which I’m not sure all the foreign visitors really got.)

Boeing’s Jim Albaugh, the CEO of the Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems unit, stressed in his opening keynote speech that the astronauts are in a unique position to push for more resources for space exploration. NASA technologies have contributed to our ability to monitor climate change, hurricanes, artificial hearts and even new high-speed Olympic swimsuits, Albaugh says. It’s also churned out a steady of supply of some of Boeing’s best engineers, he noted. The country’s lack of interest in science and math careers has amounted to “intellectual disarmament,” he says.

“An entire generation was lost,” Albaugh says. “We need a curriculum for the information age, not the industrial age. We can’t wait for another Sputnik to galvanize government to action.”

Exactly what the space program’s priorities ought to be is another matter, which the astronauts and cosmonauts talk about a fair bit, Fabian says. The space explorers have their own views about whether to continue the shuttle program past its scheduled retirement in 2010, and some are clearly nervous about what will happen during the years we’ll have to wait for NASA’s new spacecraft program, called Constellation. “A lot of us are nervous” about the end of the shuttle program and the lack of funding for Constellation, Fabian says. I suggested that if the shuttle were extended past its retirement date it could increase the risk of another disaster. Fabian’s reply: “We always take risk in space flight.”

You get the idea pretty quickly this is an optimistic bunch of people. One of the Russian cosmonauts, Yuri Usachev, was unfazed when asked whether tensions between the U.S. and his country over hostilities in Georgia could derail future cooperation between the two countries’ space programs. “We’ve had situations in the past and we resolved them, and I think we will resolve them again,” he said through an interpreter. That sounds like the kind of hopeful attitude that just might rub off on some children across the state this week.

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