Saturday, December 15, 2007

Training the Next Generation of Space Explorers

Although continued space exploration certainly requires tax payers support - less than 1% of the federal budget is spent on space exploration, i.e. in 2007 this amounts to $1.09 per week per taxpayer - such a program would be impossible without the researchers and staff employed to run it. It takes dedication and consistency to recruit and train the people who make the space exploration program work. And it takes dedication to keep a steady interest among the students to forgo more lucrative technology opportunities and motivate them to take on challenges faced in a space program. While the NASA budget for such activities is often challenged and sometimes cut this rover project demonstrates a positive role businesses can play in keeping the expert pipeline flowing. Google is a company ran by visionaries who understand the importance of a space program. Not only by creating a space related challenge but also through supporting NASA's activities in encouraging students to take engineering and research careers and thus increasing their own opportunities for future hires from this group.

The NorCal rover project was conceived as part of NASA's Spaceward Bound program. Spaceward Bound is an educational program organized at NASA Ames in partnership with The Mars Society, and funded by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) at NASA Headquarters. The focus of Spaceward Bound is to train the next generation of space explorers by having students and teachers participate in the exploration of scientifically interesting but remote and extreme environments on Earth as analogs for human exploration of the Moon and Mars. One program involves teachers in authentic fieldwork so that they can bring that experience back to their classrooms and assist in the development of curriculum related to human exploration of remote and extreme environments. The second program is to enable students at the upper undergraduate and graduate level (including teachers) to participate as crew members in two-week long immersive full-scale simulations of living and working on the Moon and Mars at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), established and operated by The Mars Society.
The software and rover experiments this group is working on is targeted at both of these activities, one of the rovers will be entirely dedicated to classroom use as a vehicle to explore different engineering and software engineering topics and as a platform for science experiments and simulations.

Since I am writing about the people who care about the eduction of space explorers I should mention something I learned recently while visiting friends at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California about an hour and a half drive from Silicon Valley. A total of 33 graduates of the Naval Postgraduate School have become astronauts; more than any other graduate school in the country. So, if you are looking into an astronaut career, the NPS may not be a bad bet. I've been lead through their labs and facilities and the people there are doing serious space science and engineering. And they have among themselves two astronauts who work with them, both veterans of space flight, Daniel Bursch and Jim Newman. Sadly, two NPS graduates perished in the two Space Shuttle accidents; Michael J. Smith aboard the Challenger, STS-51L, on January 28, 1986 and William C. McCool on Columbia, STS-107, on February 1, 2003.

The Space Systems Academic Group at the Naval Postgraduate School established an annual award to an outstanding graduate of the Space Systems curriculum in honor of the two astronauts. The group is looking to raise additional funds for a modest endowment to make the award permanent. If you have an interest in making a tax deductible donation please follow this link.