In January, President Bush stood up in front of the cameras at NASA and proposed an extensive U.S. space initiative that will include a manned mission to Mars.
Some critics of the plan say that there are better uses for the billions of dollars the program is expected to cost, like paying down the deficit or creating more jobs or improving education. Others are more imaginative in their criticism, including sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, who says: "I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert, which is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach." Still others say it's a ploy to get the votes of all those unemployed aerospace engineers out in California in the upcoming presidential election this year.
I agree. It's expensive. It's aggressive. Maybe even far-fetched. But consider this: A manned mission to Mars just might single-handedly salvage what's left of the engineering profession here in the U.S., where interest in anything involving second-order differential equations has been on the wane since the mid-1980s. Yet in countries like China, Japan, and Russia, students continue to enter engineering school in droves.
In 1961, I didn't hear John Kennedy describe to the nation how we were going to put a man on the moon. My mother had already put me down for nap. But in 1969, I—along with my brother and sister and tens of thousands of kids across America—was glued to the family television out on the back porch, watching Neil Armstrong make one big step for man.
What happened in space in that day in July 1969 captured the world's attention. And it inspired tens of thousands of kids just like me—and many of you, I'm guessing—to set their own goals to do well in school, go on to study engineering, and then go to work for NASA.
We didn't all achieve that last part, but tens of thousands of us born before 1969 worked hard, got into engineering school, and earned our degrees. Our numbers increased every year between 1976 and 1985.
Since then, the number of engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. has declined steadily every year, with the exception of 1995, when there was a small up-tick. Meanwhile, lawyers and MBAs are multiplying like rabbits. Experts predict that there will be a huge shortage of engineers in the coming years as the same kids who were inspired by putting a man on the moon begin leaving the field to enjoy their retirement years in Florida.
So just ask yourself this question: Without an aggressive goal like putting a man on Mars, just what exactly will be the inspiration for this generation of kids to pursue an education in engineering?