Committee on Science and Technology
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Op-Eds :: October 3, 2007

Science Education Initiatives Are Critical to the Future of U.S. Aerospace [Udall]

By Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO)

Published in The Hill

Keeping America and our economy strong is dependent on keeping our workforce strong.  Yet, many of our students today lack the tools to become the robust workforce of tomorrow.  The National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report laid this out in stark terms:  “The danger exists that Americans may not know enough about science, technology, or mathematics to significantly contribute to, or fully benefit from, the knowledge-based society that is already taking shape around us.” 

I am pleased that Congress and the White House have responded vigorously to the warnings of the Gathering Storm report.  The America COMPETES Act, signed into law on August 9, 2007, will give teachers, students, and Federal research and development agencies opportunities to create an education and innovation environment that will help keep America competitive in the global economy. 

As chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, I see the unique role that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plays in supporting math and science education.  NASA’s inspiring science, aeronautics, and human space flight and exploration missions are a natural attraction for children and students.  In addition, NASA’s educational initiatives can provide direct assistance to building science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills in pre-kindergarten through post-doctoral students.

In addition to NASA’s education programs, another important contributor to building and maintaining a healthy engineering and technical workforce is NASA’s research grants program—also known as Research and Analysis.  Those grants provide funding for competitive, peer-reviewed research that develops the innovative concepts and technologies for future science missions; analyzes data from scientific spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars rovers, and the Cassini mission to Saturn; and helps train graduate students and young faculty in a range of scientific and engineering disciplines.  Similar benefits have been obtained from NASA’s Explorer and suborbital research programs.

However, I am concerned that funds for all of these activities have been cut back significantly in recent years.  Dr. Daniel Baker, a space physicist and director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado testified at a recent Subcommittee hearing that “The impact of these cuts will be felt for many years since Research and Analysis, Explorers, and Suborbital programs are key elements in capitalizing on the investments that have already been made and for attracting and training the next generation of space scientists and engineers.”

It’s obvious that NASA’s educational programs need to be as effective as possible in contributing to the agency’s and the nation’s demand for a skilled and educated workforce.  That’s particularly true for a state like mine, which has seen its private sector aerospace workforce become the second largest in the nation.  Our aerospace companies are going to continue to need highly skilled individuals, as will NASA and DoD. Yet it should be equally obvious that the continued health and strength of NASA’s and the private sector’s workforces cannot be taken for granted.  A 2007 National Academies’ report, Building a Better NASA Workforce bears out that concern.  It found that “…the current requirement for a strong base of highly skilled program and project management and systems engineering personnel, and limited opportunities for junior specialists to gain hands-on space project experience, remain impediments to NASA’s ability to successfully carry out VSE [Vision for Space Exploration] programs and projects.”

In short, NASA’s workforce pipeline is in trouble.  According to the report, 67 percent of NASA’s scientists and engineers are between the ages of 40 and 59, and 12 percent of NASA engineers and 21 percent of NASA scientists are eligible to retire now—just as the agency is completing assembly of the International Space Station and gearing up to make the critical transition from the Space Shuttle to new crew transportation and exploration vehicles.

This has the potential to be a bleak picture for the future of our aerospace industry, but we have reason to be encouraged. With the enactment of the America COMPETES Act into law, NASA will have the mandate and, if we do our job in Congress, the resources to capture the “lessons learned” of its veteran workers and pass them on to newer employees. If we provide adequate funding and ensure that the program is being correctly administered, I believe we can reverse the trends that pose a threat to the health of our aerospace industry. It will take close attention on our part, and I intend to monitor NASA’s implementation of the America COMPETES Act and the National Academies’ NASA Workforce report over the coming year.

Executing a thoughtful strategy for maintaining the talent level in the public and private aerospace industries will be a cornerstone for future economic growth. The challenge is large and the stakes are high, but we are at a moment of opportunity for meeting this challenge and I am optimistic that we will do so.

 

 


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