9 Facts About NASA All Millennials Should Know, Because Space Is The Place (And Also Since You Probably Don't Know This Stuff)
Everything I know about NASA comes from one of three sources: National Public Radio, my one visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 8th grade, or that one episode of Even Stevens in which Ren sings her history project about going to the moon. This, unsurprisingly, is not a comprehensive or totally accurate perspective of the U.S.'s space program, but it's hard to figure out what I should know about NASA because there is so much information out there, even if I know that space is pretty awesome.
One good place to start is with Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, by Margaret Lazarus Dean, which also won this year's Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Dean's enthusiasm for spaceflight in general and NASA more specifically is infectious, and the book weaves together facts about this history of NASA with questions about the future of the organization, all while Dean bore witness to an important moment of transition: the end of the shuttle program. Dean writes, "I have come to feel that the end of the space shuttle is going to be the ending of a story, the story of one of the truly great things my country has accomplished, and that I want to be the one to tell it."
Now, if you're anything like me, you probably read the end of that paragraph and were like, "Hold up. They're ending the space shuttle program? How can they do such a thing?!" In fact, NASA has already ended it; the final space shuttle mission flew in July 2011. And Dean was there to watch it happen and then write about it.
This ignorance of the history and scope of NASA is, unfortunately, not uncommon. Dean repeatedly noticed this knowledge gap as she documented the end of the shuttle program, especially among millennials. An associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Dean asked her students, all millennials, to answer some questions about NASA and found that they, "have an invariably positive, even affectionate, opinion of NASA, even if they aren't entirely sure what the scope of NASA's mandate is, or how old it is."
Now that the shuttle program is over, and the future of the government agency is still being debated, here are nine facts that all Millennials should know about NASA based on Dean's Leaving Orbit.
There Were Two Eras of Spaceflight In the United States...
Although Dean is disappointed that her Millennial-aged students don't know when American spaceflight started or when an American astronaut first walked on the moon, "Much more troubling is the extent to which they conflate the two eras of space flight into one big lump." The first era of spaceflight was what she terms the "heroic era." This is the era of moon landings, of John Glenn orbiting the Earth in a small little capsule, of (male) astronauts as heroes risking their lives in the name of space travel and the United States. This was followed by the shuttle era, which began in 1972. As Dean writes, "there was a significant change between the heroic era and the shuttle era, separated by years and a great leap in technology and fanfare that was very moving to little children in the early eighties."
...And the Shuttle Era is Officially Over
Dean adds, "I'm left with the disconcerting fact that [my students] don't actually know what a space shuttle is." That big white spaceship that looks like an oversized airplane that most Millennials imagine when thinking of NASA and space travel is the space shuttle. But the program ended in 2011, due to funding cuts from Congress. The last three shuttles — Endeavour, Atlantis, and Discovery — are now museum pieces, never to be flown again.
But Wait! There are Still Astronauts...
The end of the shuttle era doesn't mark the end of NASA, though, and the government agency still employs and trains astronauts. Dean interviewed Serena Auñón, who was hired to be an astronaut in 2007, after it was announced the shuttle program would end, but she's still kept occupied: "Even as an astronaut candidate who hasn't been assigned to flight yet, she is already on a busy schedule learning the systems of the [International Space Station] and the Soyuz, training for space walks in the underwater mockup, and studying the Russian language intensively."
...and the United States Is Still Sending Them to Space!
American astronauts are still going up to space, primarily to work on the International Space Station (ISS). Scott Kelly is spending a year in space on the ISS. But he got up there on a Russian rocket, not an American one. (This, of course, explains the need for Russian language lessons taken by Auñón and all the other astronaut candidates.)
The First Moon Landing Was In 1969 (You Should Know This for Jeopardy!)
"Only a minority of my students can correctly place the sequence of 'firsts'...," writes Dean. "[T]he number of students who knew the correct dates for these events was one." So let's break this down, shall we? The first human in space as a Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, followed by an American that May. Glenn orbited the Earth in a little Mercury capsule in 1962. We went to the moon in 1969, and the first space shuttle Columbia flew in April 1981. Any questions?
No Women Have Walked on the Moon
Dean has great admiration for the female astronauts, writing, "The women astronauts were a late-seventies dream of second-wave feminism with their graduate degrees in science and engineering, their feathered hair and lip gloss. I thought they looked fantastic." Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, and since, there have been many more, but no women have ever walked on the moon. Unfortunately, the way things are looking, "there are no plans for this under way."
"Meatball" and "Worm" Refer to Different Designs of the NASA Insignia
There have been two different NASAs logos: the meatball and the worm. The meatball is the original and current logo, so-called because of the blue sphere, representing a planet. In the '70s, NASA decided it needed a new logo to "refresh the agency's image as forward-thinking and futuristic, and the new logo reflected this ideal: just the four letters NASA, so simplified and stylized that even the cross strokes on the As were removed as if to make the acronym more aerodynamic." No one really like the worm, so NASA went back to the meatball.
The Vehicle Assembly Building Is a Work of Art
Dean is fascinated by the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was built as a moonport, a place to "house the simultaneous assembly of four moonbound rockets." "No other single-story building comes close to equaling its size," writes Dean, "if you are willing to accept that its 525-foot height constitutes a single story." When Dean is able to go inside the building for the first time, she starts to cry: "This is where spaceships are assembled, every rocket to the moon, every space shuttle. I feel the enormity of the work that has been done here." She quotes Norman Mailer, who described the VAB as "the ugliest building in the world from the outside, but that from the inside it was a candidate for the most beautiful."
The United States Has Never Been Interested in Space for the Sake of Space
Dean ends the book with the reminder, "There was never enthusiastic public support for human spaceflight for its own sake." And as the country grapples with the future of space travel, it's a good thing to keep in mind. What does the country need from a space program, if it needs a space program at all? "What does it mean that we went to space for fifty years and then decided not to anymore?" Those questions are still up in the air, but pictures like this historic "blue marble" image are a definitely a nice perk.