Photo of an astronaut from the Soviet Union

Alexei Leonov is the Russian cosmonaut who was the first person to ever “spacewalk.” It was March 18, 1965. Going to space in 1965 meant climbing into a teensy-weensy capsule (about the size of a small car) perched over 90,000 pounds of explosive rocket fuel and hoping for the best as the countdown reached zero and the rocket fuel ignited in a bone-jarring, deafening roar.

Imagine the courage needed to be the first person not only to ride a rocket into space but also to open a door roughly 200 miles above the surface of the planet and step outside. Astronaut Ed White successfully conducted the first NASA Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA, the technical name for a spacewalk) on June 3, 1965.

Students flock to science and engineering.

First-hand stories of such courageous science inspired college students to study more science and engineering. According to the American Institute of Physics, in 1955 U.S. colleges and universities awarded about 2,500 bachelor’s degrees in physics. In 1970 about 6,000 physics bachelor’s degrees were awarded in the United States. Students were not just flocking to physics. Engineering and other sciences all saw a boom in the number of students taking courses and earning degrees due in part to the courageous men and women who went to space during the Cold War.

Did losing space programs make us lose our interest in science?

The rise in physics and engineering majors during the 1960s didn’t last. In fact, around the year 2000, fewer people were getting undergraduate degrees in physics than at any time in the past four decades, and engineering saw a similar decline. The United States produced fewer than 3,500 physics bachelor’s degrees in 2001, when I earned my bachelor’s degree in physics.

I don’t know why physics became unpopular during the 1990s but I wonder if changes in space exploration had something to do with it. After the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, NASA suspended all shuttle activity for nearly three years, and many people began to question what we were really gaining from expensive programs to send people to space.

Can high-tech robots inspire us?

Since bottoming out around 1999, the number of students earning undergraduate physics degrees has begun to increase again. In 2010, the number of physics bachelor’s degrees was again up around 6,000, equal to the highest number reached since 1955.

Could space exploration be inspiring students once again? I don’t know for sure, but some very exciting things have certainly happened in space, particularly on Mars, in the past 15 years. Just a short list:

  • 1997 – The first Mars rover, Sojourner the Pathfinder Rover, successfully arrives on Mars
  • 1998 – International Space Station program begins
  • 2003 – Mars Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” leave Earth to begin a very successful mission on Mars
  • 2006 – Announcement of plans for a permanent moon base (this program has since been suspended)
  • 2009 – Final manned mission to keep the Hubble Space Telescope operating
  • 2012 –Curiosity rover safely arrives on the surface of Mars after one of the most complicated landings ever planned

A few of these events do involve human explorers, but many are missions carried out by high-tech robots. Maybe these engineering achievements can inspire as well as human heroes.

The internet is changing science.

It may be that the age of the heroic individual is passing in science and engineering fields. The internet is one tool that is changing science. Gamers who volunteered to play an online “game” discovered critical information about the AIDS virus in just three days. Trained scientists had been working on the same AIDS puzzle for 15 years! In astronomy, online amateur astronomy buffs have been analyzing data from the planet-finding Kepler space mission and have successfully identified 34 “candidate planets” so far.

Our changing world demands more science knowledge.

I don’t think that gamers and Internet volunteers are going to replace trained scientists in the future, but I do think that continued progress of science and technology relies on a more science-literate public and collaborations of scientists and non-scientists. We need to work together if we are going to solve some of the tough problems facing the world today.

As the age of heroic individuals and their eye-witness accounts of new discoveries get replaced by discoveries from robotic explorers and complex, computer-controlled experiments here on earth, even understanding what the discoveries are and why they are meaningful requires some knowledge of science beyond what is taught in high school. For this reason I hope that rovers, orbiters, and feats of engineering can continue to inspire interest and engagement in college science classes for all students.

What do you think inspires people to be interested in science?

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