Who will help us take the next giant leap?

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2011

"For the final time: wheels stop," said commander Steven Lindsey as the Space Shuttle Discovery rolled to a stop Wednesday. And with that, the world's most flown spacecraft returned from orbit to become a museum piece.

NASA is retiring the space shuttle program as its focus shifts from orbiting our planet to sending manned missions to other planets. Crew members called it a bittersweet moment as the spacecraft heads into retirement after what was called a flawless mission.

The space shuttle program ends after 30 years, during which time it has captured the imagination of generations of Americans, picking up where Apollo left off. Indeed, it has served as an inspiration for aspiring scientists, engineers and astronauts through triumph and tragedy. Right here in Kenai, the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska is one of 52 Challenger centers across the country, part of a program created by families of the astronauts lost in the 1986 Challenger disaster. Its mission is to develop an insterest in STEM education -- science, technology, engineering and math, the very subjects necessary to help us take the next giant leap for mankind.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District also has in place programs to encourage young engineers and scientists, and teachers have taken advantage of outside programs with the same goal. Events such as Mind a-Mazes, Lego robotics competitions, Future Problem Solvers -- the list goes on of hands-on activities designed to encourage students to develop their science-based problem-solving skills.

Their continued development is crucial, not just to help NASA launch manned flights to other planets, but to get every type of project across our nation, around the state, even on the Kenai Peninsula, off the ground. From better roads to oil exploration to renewable energy development, if we want to build it, we need engineers to design it.

While the demand for scientists and engineers will only grow in the future, unfortunately, the domestic supply is dwindling. We hear the laments about American students underperforming and a lack of interest in science and engineering careers. All this comes at a time when officials at all levels of government are sending mixed messages about the value of education. At the state level, we have a Legislature that demands higher graduation rates, but was reluctant to fund scholarships for high-performing students and cut funding for a pre-kindergarten pilot program designed to help young students be ready to learn. And a list of recommendations compiled by the Advisory Task Force on High Education and Career Readiness only seems to have overwhelmed lawmakers.

Closer to home, what used to be a given -- funding the school district at the maximum level allowed by state law -- is now a contentious budget item. And the borough's funding of Kenai Peninsula College was taken off the chopping block only after great public outcry.

NASA has two more shuttle missions slated -- Endeavour is scheduled to launch April 19, and Atlantis on June 28.

After that, NASA will rely on private companies to deliver astronauts and satellites to low-earth orbit while the agency will focus on Mars and beyond.

The question is, who will we have trained to get us there?

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