As a father, and as someone who speaks frequently with young people, I have noticed that smart, ambitious youth tend to fall into two basic categories: those who want to change the world, and those who want to save it. Either ambition can lead to great things, or blow everything up. To channel the ambitions of our best and brightest youth, I believe we need more than movies about space. We need a tangible, crucial mission that saves humanity.
At any rate, we definitely need more people to go into STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
America depends on its technological leadership for security and a healthy economy. Yet we are in danger of losing that very technological leadership. Our university system, as challenged as it is politically and economically these days, continues to be seen as a model by the rest of the world; more than half of students pursuing Ph.D.’s in science and tech in this country are foreign nationals who return to their home countries. Those places used to be occupied mostly by Americans.
Inspired by the space program, the number of American math and science Ph.D.’s more than tripled during the Sixties. After the end of Apollo, that number began to decline, and today there is a seri- ous shortfall. America spends more than $1 trillion a year on education, but it has trouble recruiting its own young citizens into STEM. Meanwhile, other nations are doing all they can to invest in STEM education, with the hope of leading the world. This isn’t a bad thing. When we colonize space, we won’t do it alone.
But if we don’t take the lead, who do we want to lead us?