Shuttle Atlantis Home! Prompts Me to Look to America’s Future … and I’m Troubled

 Posted by DrJeff on November 27th, 2009

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This is a Teachable Moment in the News and a Dr. Jeff Speaks Out.


This is crossposted at the Huffington Post HERE and at the Space Tweep Society Blog HERE.


I just watched space shuttle Atlantis land at Kennedy. I had lots and lots of mixed emotions. The shuttle is just a remarkable technological achievement, and watching it land can be a pretty emotional experience.

But the space shuttle was never supposed to be more than a space truck to low Earth orbit. I was left reflecting on my childhood when I watched Apollo astronauts walking on the Moon, and dreamed of what awaited us in the 21st century in terms of human spaceflight. It has definitely not come to pass. In fact, approaching 2010 we are now at a crossroads. Shuttle has just 5 more flights, and then the U.S. will need to rely on the Russians for years just to have astronaut access to the International Space Station. And that’s just keeping the status quo with humans continuing to travel no farther from the surface of Earth than a couple hundred miles. I drive farther than that visiting my mom just north of New York City from my home near Washington, DC. It’s called low Earth orbit, and we’ve been stuck here now for 37 YEARS. Is this the grand vision for human spaceflight we embraced 40 years ago when we saw Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the Moon?

So what exactly are we doing as a nation in terms of leadership in human spaceflight? Are we embracing a strategic long-term plan or an administration flavor of the month? Should human spaceflight be a high technology priority for America? Should we allow this leadership to pass to other nations? Won’t such action surely help erode our larger ‘brand’ as a leader and innovator in science and technology? Is it really about the NASA budget shortfall recently identified by the White House-appointed Committee headed by Norman Augustine, or is it something far more substantial, reflecting a nation trying to redefine itself—no, make that a superpower unsure of how to chart its course in the 21st century after the rules of the road seem to have dramatically changed? Is it the inability to muster a national will on virtually anything in light of a seemingly perfect storm of crises here at home, and globally?


My sadness over an unrealized vision for human spaceflight only leads me to a more general realization. And it’s this realization that is very troubling, even ominous. Will America be able to compete in the global high technology marketplace of the 21st century? Are we taking science and technology education seriously? Are PARENTS taking science and technology education seriously? Do Americans know that our national prowess in science and technology is about the future of our children, our standard of living, and the American dream? Do Americans truly know this is of national strategic importance? We are living through changes forced by globalization and a new marketplace. Are jobs lost ever coming back? More importantly—are we training Americans—all Americans—in our grade K-12 system and in our colleges and universities, in skills required by 21st century jobs? This is far bigger than leadership in spaceflight. It’s about the science and technology required to address global problems from energy, to climate change, to managing limited resources in the midst of growing populations. Will America be capable of stepping to the plate in the face of these challenges—in the face of these remarkable opportunities?


WE LANDED HUMANS ON THE MOON. IT IS STILL HARD TO FATHOM. IT WAS THE MOST REMARKABLE JOURNEY THE HUMAN RACE HAS EVER UNDERTAKEN (my view). It was raw inspiration propelling generations of young Americans to the frontiers of science and technology. Yet it seems to me that a vibrant, healthy nation, is only as good as its next success. The question before us—are we now destined in the words of Dylan Thomas to “just go gentle into that good night?” I firmly believe it is up to us.


I am very troubled. And as an American … I can say it hurts. I’m very interested in your thoughts on this, so please feel free to share below.


I had written in an earlier post my view on the needed driver for the future of U.S. human spaceflight.


Here is what it was like for me living through Apollo, and a later chance encounter with Buzz Aldrin. It will give you a sense of where I’m coming from, and might reconnect you with a vision for the future from a time long ago.



Photocredit: NASA

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22 Responses to “Shuttle Atlantis Home! Prompts Me to Look to America’s Future … and I’m Troubled”

  1. jgrom Says:
    November 28th, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    As a middle school teacher, I truly strive for the above! I am constantly “updating” myself. Unfortunately, we as teachers are limited by our leadership and resources. I am very troubled over these things as I believe we are NOT providing the 21st century educational experience.
    Love the Blog!
    Peace, Jeff Grom

  2. Gary Says:
    November 29th, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    I am not American but also remember very clearly the Apollo programme and the moon landing. From your previous posts it appears I was a bit older (attended university in the 60’s). Many of my professors that I had for my B.Sc were American and we learned to respect the American contributions to science, even if we had doubts about the Vietnam war (as many Americans did). Now many non-Americans associate the U.S. with pseudo-science and anti-science ideas (“intelligent” design, creationism, anti-vaccination movements, global warming denial, and a political environment that seems to favour particular religious views over reality). American scientists continue to be leaders in many science endeavours but that is not known by Americans or the rest of the world. The negative impression is the majority perception and is unwarranted.

    Unfortunately the anti-science rhetoric is not confined only to your country. We have groups and politicians north of you that seem to have adopted similar views. I am not suggesting that this is completely the result of American cultural influence but many of our less critical and intelligent political leaders are willing to be led.

    Any success that thinking Americans have in correcting this “troubling” situation will be greatly appreciated by those in other countries who are observing a similar phenomena.

    Thank you for the blog. I read it regularly but this is the first time I have commented.

  3. Bob Stacy Says:
    December 6th, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    It does certainly seem that lots of folks would like to return to the ‘Dark Ages.’ I may over simplify, but I think a lot of the blame goes to TV Networks that cater to psuedo-science and myths. Ghosts, flying saucers, doomsday, etc. Almost everyday this ‘stuff’ can be found on some station. People begin to believe this garbage as fact. It is very sad.

  4. MrDunk Says:
    December 6th, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    I was born in the late 50s, so I grew up with the US space program. It was a constant source of excitement, and it always gave young people a vivid glimpse into the application and use of STEM knowledge and skills. As the space program has become more of a political hot potato, I fear for the future of our students. While there are very exciting advanced every day in engineering and medicine, the space program should be fully funded in perpetuity and should be considered an integral part of the educational landscape of America.

  5. Benjamin D Brooks Says:
    December 6th, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Hi Jeff,

    As an Englishman, a non-physicist and a young person (not having experienced the space race), this general trend is rather worrying, and it may be some small comfort, if a bitter-sweet one to know that your country is not the only one facing the same issues.

    In the UK, science is having it’s funding cut by the government on a regular basis, and non-science is getting tax breaks and free reign over education by comparison.

    Thankfully here some scientists and a great number of science students and advocates are trying to stem the tide, trying to regain our funding and improve the standing of the sciences.

    Schools are seeing increasing numbers of pupils drop the more technical and more “difficult” subjects as early as possible, and alongside modern foreign languages, the education system is dumbing down. I have seen this in the three years since leaving my secondary school and it pains me to say it because I am a product of that system.

    America is one of the richest nations on the planet, and yet a significant number of your citizens live below the poverty line or without basic medical care, so it is perhaps understandable to focus on these issues preferentially. There is however no reason for jeopardising the future of a nation, and indeed the people within it, merely for the benefit of the present.

    Long term issues may be extremely difficult to build the will to solve now, but surely it would be better to solve them now than in the long term when you can only use “short term” fixes which may bankrupt you?

    Thanks for highlighting this issue, and I hope that your country sees the proverbial light soon, as indeed I hope that the UK will.

    Ben Brooks

  6. Gerrit Says:
    December 6th, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    I’ve been living in the US for the last 5 years but grew up in Germany in the midst of the cold war area. On the one side I experienced both Russia and America as very scary superpowers and players in an arms race that could potentially have destroyed the entire planet. On the other hand I found the achievements in space science absolutely fascinating and inspiring…and I think it were the incredible space events that triggered my interest for math, physics, science, and computers in elementary and high school. I still remember when the first Space Shuttle launched in the 80s, and the excitement across all of Germany despite cold war, nuclear weapons and SDI. I wasn’t born yet in the 50s and 60s, but I can imagine what an impact the moonlanding had on the dreams, hopes, optimism of the entire world.

    Unfortunately, so many exciting and life-changing technological developments wouldn’t have happened without the military, cold and other wars. The Internet we all are enjoying nowadays would not exist without the US Dept.of Defense’s Arpanet. The space program and its civilian benefits would not have existed without the cold war and arms race as motivator.

    When I grew up it was desirable to become an engineer, scientist, professor, teacher, doctor, researcher, computer scientist… but as the years passed, this has changed a lot. When there were more teachers than teaching opportunities, people stopped studying to become teachers. When the metal/steel industry began to outsource to China and eventually shut down factories all across Germany, mechanical engineering and metal processing began to become undesirable as academic fields of study. Then information technology experienced a boom, I think thanks to the Internet, but the excitement died down after the bubble burst and so many jobs were outsourced again. So many ex-computer experts suddenly turned to real estate because they could make more money as a real estate agent. So many other people are more interested in studying business administration than science. Just as to the “starving/breadless arts”, one has to bring a lot of idealism and/or financial independence/security to the table in order to make science a lifelong commitment. And that’s somewhat understandable…who wouldn’t want to gain some kind of financial security after investing four or more years in higher education?

    And when the public interest fades, it’s not surprising that the media begins to focus on other things instead in their pursuit to maximize their advertising revenue. While shuttle launches or scientific achievements are not a matter of public interest, and not at all or only very briefly mentioned in the news, all you ever get to hear and see is celebrity gossip, papparazi footage, octomoms, Susan Boyles, baloon boys etc. In the end money is all that counts — and not some higher sense of truth or ethics.

    I do fear about the future not only of America, but also Germany, and mankind as a whole, if the future generations grow up taking all technological and scientific progress for granted and with an idea that media, publicity, reality tv, sales, marketing, business, or just money is more important than education.

    I have to agree with Gary. Sometimes I can’t help to feel apologetic for living in the US, while just a few years back America was admired as being the driving force of computer technology and the amazing wave of progress. But the last administration, the war, the re-election, denial of climate change and global warming, oil vs. alternative energy sources, etc have done a lot of damage to America’s reputation. I can only hope that this new administration will recreate an environment of reason, and that future generations will be able to recognize and resist the ‘bread & circus’ mentality.

    Not only America, but Germany, too, has changed a lot in the last few years. Perhaps it was just a natural shift from agriculture to industrial revolution…from industry to an information society…from an info-society to an entertainment society? What would be next?

    Sorry about this lengthy rant.

  7. DrJeff Says:
    December 6th, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Hey everyone, I’m kinda getting a little teary-eyed reading these wonderful comments. It’s clear what I’m feeling here in the U.S. is something we are all sharing around the globe. I hope we all can inspire a future for our children that they deserve. I’m just not sure I know how to get from here to there. -Jeff

  8. Tom Maxwell Says:
    December 6th, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    I too share the concerns of our future generations, albeit for reasons other than mentioned.

    My concern lies with us, the scientific and teaching community who seem willing to compromise scientific integrity for political or financial gain. Just recently the story broke about the scientists who allegedly chose to ignore some data at a minimum and outright conspired to hide it because it didn’t support their political goals on global warming.

    It has been said that the way to combat logic is with emotion and the way to counter emotion is with calm and logic. I would like to add to this integrity. It is time the scientists of this nation and all nations stop choosing political sides and stop compromising scientific integrity for the sake of a grant or to further their own political agenda. If scientists can’t do this, what hope do we have for the less logic minded individuals so ever willing to be led down any primrose path that happens to bloom and smell sweet. When people feel threatened or out of control, they turn to the supernatural and faith based systems to make meaning of their confusion. It is we the scientific community and teachers who need to stand up and lead. Forget what is politically correct and teach our students the truth as we know it in the scientific community.

  9. Sean Welton Says:
    December 6th, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    You’re not alone! I too have been thinking the same thing since I heard news about the shuttle program’s end. While the shuttle is getting to be outdated, it’s a symbol of the American space program. Whether that’s a good or bad symbol is up to the reader…

    But in all seriousness, I see a lack of enthusiasm towards science in general. Perhaps people haven’t been inspired by modern science, maybe we just need the next Apollo program to come along and pick up the pace. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening any time soon in the current economic situation. People are too focused on which banks are failing or getting bailed out to even care about the shuttle program’s end.

    And that is what makes it such a sad end for the shuttle…

    As Carl Sagan said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

    More relevant now, then ever before…

    Clear skies,

  10. Catherine Says:
    December 7th, 2009 at 2:01 am

    This article is wonderful -touches on so many important issues surrounding the future of human space exploration and the education of children and adults in Science & technology fields.

    I would encourage anyone who is interested in supporting a grassroots movement to help urge the government to continue funding NASA and it’s HSF program to join the newly established “Save NASA” campaign at the website: (established by Neal Wiser – @NealWiser on twitter)
    The site provides a lot of scope for discussion and ideas on how best to support NASA’s mission. Blog articles like this would be appreciated so much.

    Thanks again for the great post Jeff,

    Catherine Qualtrough

  11. James Says:
    December 7th, 2009 at 4:19 am

    It appears to me that the public -not just in the US – don’t seem to have an appetite to spend what they see as “huge amounts of tax-payers money” on “frivolous space projects”. The public seem unaware of how *little* money is spent on these endeavours in the grand scheme of tax spending. Both your country and mine (UK) is currently throwing vast sums of money at a foolish war on terrorism – a war that cannot be won by conventional methods. The money wasted on this war casts shadows over that spent on any other projects. This war also consumes two of our most precious resourses – lives and fuel.

    Where I’m going with this is that the public need educating or at least just being shown exactly where their money goes. Total transparancy. Hopefully then, the money that great projects such as the exploration and colonization of space would be compared favourably. Also, the public need to be made aware of the benefits that such projects provide and not just the immediate ones but also the benefits that are provided due to advances in the scientific fields that support such grand endeavours.

    What will the future be for our race? Every day we spend on this rock is another day that we may, or may not dodge an extinction level event. All our eggs are in this one basket so to speak. Even if we have only a handful of people in space and on self-sustainable outposts, we have a chance.

    I will die a sad man indeed if we haven’t at least furthered our foothold in space within the next 50 years.

    We are a race defined by our actions. Let those be our measure and let those be grand.

  12. Philippe Valdois Says:
    December 7th, 2009 at 5:36 am

    I could not agree more with your analysis. Buzz aldrin made similar comments about our lack of progress those past 40 years.

    Reading about global warming, I am also reminded of a book title: SHORT-TERM DECISIONS Equal LONG-TERM DISASTERS
    People with a vision are rare. Policy-makers are elected for a short term and are even less willing to see the consequences both positive and negative of their choices.

    It goes both ways. We should be able to anticipate the negative effects of our present policies as well as the long term benefits of choices based on science.

    One major problem, apart from the shortsightedness of politicians, is the inability of humans in general to see farther than the length of their own life.
    Also, we react to catastrophes and not to incremental loss of life (traffic fatalities, for example). Conversely, this frame of mind makes it difficult for us to understand that investing now and continually in space exploration might well help our grandchildren not only improve their quality of life but even survive.

    I agree with those who have commented about a shift happening from science and reality based thinking towards magic or religious thinking. But the scientific community in addition to trying to show its value and integrity should improve its ability to inspire the next generation and help those children discover the beauty and magic of nature. We are wired to be attracted by transcendental beauty and what is at a scale we cannot apprehend through our senses only.
    Science can answer this need as well or better than organized religion.
    And those more spiritually inclined can also find inspiration in the discoveries and questions of science without getting all their answers from groups of power hungry men.

  13. DrJeff Says:
    December 7th, 2009 at 9:55 am

    I’m posting this for Heather Burton

    Hello Jeff
    Thanks for the opportunity to share in your debate.
    With kind regards

    Here is my reply – I have answered various of your points so I have made my replies obvious.

    Dr. Jeff – Won’t such action surely help erode our larger ‘brand’ as a leader and innovator in science and technology?
    HeatheratSussex – It is possible to continue to lead and innovate in science and technology without leading and innovating in ‘EVERY’ discipline. Are you sure this isn’t just ego speaking?

    Dr. Jeff – Are we taking science and technology education seriously? Are PARENTS taking science and technology education seriously? Do Americans know that our national prowess in science and technology is about the future of our children, our standard of living, and the American dream?

    HeatheratSussex – How do you educate the great uneducated in subjects that are perceived to be difficult? How much easier it is to learn about law or media, where the rewards are perceived to be realised so much sooner for less effort.

    The German education for physicists can last up to 11 years before they receive their doctorate. Why should someone with flair and acumen for learning bother to study a difficult subject for 11 years when the rewards are so poor?

    It is not just Americans you should be worrying about; all societies are facing the same ennui and apathy.

    Dr. Jeff – It’s about the science and technology required to address global problems from energy, to climate change, to managing limited resources in the midst of growing populations.

    HeatheratSussex – I agree this is something that America should be addressing – but should have been addressing for the past 10 years, not just now that Obama has arrived. Unfortunately the Bush years will be seen as those which stunted science and innovation, which pooh-poohed climate change and exploited limited resources. The global perception of America is one of not caring for the rest of the world, the ‘we-are-alright-Jack’ syndrome. Time to be a little more modest and caring, a little less egotistical and dominating.

    Dear Dr. Jeff – I don’t think this is necessarily what you want to hear, but it is worth my saying it just the same.

  14. DrJeff Says:
    December 7th, 2009 at 10:21 am

    This is in reply to Heather’s comments-
    I’m not sure why what I said in this post seems egotistical. I’m an American. I’m an American taxpayer. America has a space program. America has been a leader in both space exploration, and more broadly, science and technology. So let me lament about issues that directly impact the future of my country in the hope that what I write can have some positive impact. And please know that I do not do this in a bubble. My view has been and always will be global. I am worried about the health of the planet, and ALL our children. PLEASE SEE THIS. I view exploration as something that is innately human, and something that knows no national boundaries. PLEASE SEE THIS. But I am an American, and I hope that those beyond our shores recognize that there are millions of Americans that support global views and a global vision, and that all Americans MUST NOT BE JUDGED THROUGH THE PRISM of what comes out of the White House and Congress – regardless of the Administration in office. To do that is naive. For the record, I was proud to vote for Barack Obama, particularly for his global vision. And I fully respect the opinions of those Americans who did not vote for him. But let me also be clear here as well-AMERICANS VOTED HIM INTO OFFICE, not the rest of the world. So Heather, please don’t lecture Americans about when we should have addressed the issues I wrote about in this post. Many of us Americans have been REALLY trying for “the past 10 years”. HERE is what I’ve been doing for 25 Years. Don’t shoot the messenger.

  15. Mike Says:
    December 7th, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    I love the post! I find it quite sad that we accomplished something 40 years ago that we cannot accomplish today. I think this may stem from increased lobbying in Washington. Our politicians could care less about funding something that doesn’t directly help them get elected. It is much better for their careers to add earmarks for private industries that give them campaign money. It is a very sad truth and I doubt it will change anytime soon.

  16. Neal Wiser Says:
    December 7th, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    I feel your pain regarding NASA’s future. Personally, I believe that the future of the United States is intimately tied to our achievements in science and technology. These achievements are among the things that define us as a modern nation, one that inspires peoples from all nations and one that leads by example.

    Unfortunately, like so many of the problems we face today, our current predicament is caused by short-sightedness and lack of courageous leadership. Joining space advocacy groups like SaveNASA ( can help by adding your voice to those who share the belief that human spaceflight is a critical endeavor.

  17. Rachel Hughett Says:
    December 7th, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    As an elementary school science lab instructor, I strive every day to ensure that my students are receiving the instruction they need. I fought for a Promethean board in my room last year and got it. I use it every day with all of my classes from PK to 3rd. This year I introduced my second and third grade students to the Gizmos website to encourage them to use technology in their math and science experiments. I have also fought hard to bring the science fair back at my campus. We will be kicking off the process in late January despite the misgivings of some at my school. I am not alone at my campus though. Every year we introduce new technology to our campus and struggle to find the time between testing to ensure that the students are exposed to it. We have a science and technology night to showcase some of the activities that our students do all year long and to encourage our parents to get excited about what’s happening in these fields. All these things are just some of the steps that we can take to ensure the children of America are exposed daily to science and technology. I wish there was more that I could do, because I too remember the the excitement of my first shuttle launch. We must prepare to wage war against apathy and misunderstandings in regards to the benefits of studying and working in these fields. We must educate our parents and students about what they mean to our future as a planet. Without us fighting for advancement in these fields, our future is lost.

  18. Lyle Says:
    December 8th, 2009 at 11:51 am

    I’m optimistic about the future of space flight because of the growing interest of private businesses. Virgin Atlantic is taking reservations now for flights to low orbit. As that gains in popularity among the rich, the price will come down because other businesses will begin investing in it. The future of space flight is best left up to the free market.

  19. Doug Smith Says:
    December 8th, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I teach 7th grade science and constantly stive to to bring out the innate creativity and immagination in all of my students. I also try to demonstrate a hunger for and agressiveness for learning each day. However, I feel the way the system is arranged today significantly diminishes our effectiveness. We have policy dictated to us from people who don’t even know, or understand, our children. All children are not alike…and never will be. Education should be directed from a local level on ALL matters. Presently I don’t think we are set up for this. Our leaders don’t have enough backbone to tell the State, or even leaders at the National level, when something isn’t right and isn’t working. Personally I don’t think education should be micromanaged. It would be great if we had strong leaders at the local levels, at the community level, that could direct educational matters. I think everybody would benefit…The nation, state, community, parents, students, and teachers. Just my two cents.

  20. Ted Magnuson Says:
    December 8th, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Dr Jeff, As computing and HDTV technology continue to advance at a rapid pace, as the costs of these tools drop, it is a tragedy to see the vapid use to which this resource is to often put. To further complicate progress and discovery, Instead of increasing efficiencies in healthcare, energy and the arts and sciences, we too often see fillibustering, and stalling while the last dollar is plucked from obsolete technologies. When will clearer heads prevail?

    Incidentally, I understand the LCROSS probe found significant ice on the moon. Any chance this could be the start of providing life sustaining elements for that environment?

  21. Pat Owens Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    I think it may be all about “motivation.” I, too,lived through the 60s and watched every launch, and remember the feeling of pride, awe, and unity when man walked on the moon. Yes, we had the goal the Kennedy had set, but the driving force, the real motivation, was the Cold War. It all boiled down to a pissing contest with the USSR. Without the Cold War, I don’t think we’d have landed on the moon even to this day.
    What we need as a country, as a world, is that kind of motivational impetus. To me it is the planetary havoc we are wreaking on our own world. The sad fact is, this planet cannot support us forever, and unless we establish at least one self sufficient human colony elswhere, sooner or later we are doomed to extinction. I’m glad to see that the U.S. apathy towards climate change, renewable resources, etc., doesn’t seem to be shared by other countries. Perhaps we can be ridiculed into caring by the rest of the world.
    I can think of no more important scientific or technological motivation than the survival of the human race. If we can somehow instill the importance of that into our school system, then perhaps the next generation of leaders will be able to do what we can’t: pay attention to the most basic of instincts, survival.

  22. Neil Conry Says:
    April 12th, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Awesome article as usual, thank you for posting all this helpful stuff on a regular basis.