Guest Opinion: Don’t let Challenger disaster, space race become lost

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(Note: This op-ed originally appeared on the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, in the news outlets linked at the bottom of this post. Post originally posted on Jan. 28, 2015.)

BOSTON — Today marks the anniversary of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning,” President Ronald Reagan told the nation, “as they … waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”

The country grieved, especially Massachusetts, because among the crew members killed was Framingham native Christa McAuliffe, a U.S. history teacher and the first educator-astronaut.

American rocketry began in Worcester through the imagination of physicist-inventor Robert Goddard, who built the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. Goddard’s inspiration was H.G. Wells’ classic novel “The War of the Worlds,” which he read as a boy.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, while in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became humanity’s first cosmonaut. As the space race started and the Cold War intensified, it ushered in a sweepingly technocratic vision of society that still marks American education.

Regrettably, in schools, history is lost in deep space. In 2009, claiming prohibitive costs, the Patrick administration postponed a requirement that Massachusetts high school students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate.

NASA’s voyages have captured our dreams with interstellar pioneers like Alan Shepard, the first American in space (1961); John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth (1962); and Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut (1983).

Will our kids know their names?On the U.S. history-civics portion of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, over two-thirds of America’s students scored below “proficient.” When it comes to history instruction in our public schools, the crew of the malfunction-ridden Apollo 13 lunar mission said it best: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”Nevertheless, teachers and students alike would enjoy Pulitzer Prize-winner Walter McDougall’s history of the space age, “The Heavens and the Earth,” which reveals a key linkage between Massachusetts and America’s space program.

In the 1950s, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, early skeptics of rocketry’s usefulness, were persuaded otherwise by a science buff named Freddy, a maître d’ at the mahogany-lined Boston restaurant Locke-Ober.

“Freddy would place an empty whiskey bottle on the bar, stick a pin through a straw crosswise, set the straw afire and gently lower the flame into the bottle.” After a countdown, a “‘pop’ …sent the straw shooting toward the ceiling,” writes McDougall. The first lunar landing later became a courageous goal of Kennedy’s presidency.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Armstrong famously proclaimed, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In 2013, the Obama administration indefinitely postponed the U.S. history-civics NAEP tests for America’s students, blaming it on a $6.8 million sequestration budget cut. Instead of reaching for the stars as President Kennedy did, current education policymaking is more like the Jules Verne novel, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

But only greatness will truly inspire the young. High school students should read award-winning writer Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” which profiles NASA’s early 1960s Project Mercury astronauts, their families, and Chuck Yeager.

Yeager, the high-speed military test pilot, is the book’s hero. Despite being America’s best aviator and the first to break the sound barrier (Mach 1, or about 750 mph), he wasn’t eligible to be an astronaut and NASA technocrats considered him too much of a maverick.

As Wolfe has said, “in the code of the ‘right stuff’ the idea was that you had to show courage … in a hurtling piece of machinery… right out over the edge … and bring it back in …”

Hopefully, recent elections and polling data are an indication of more courage on Beacon Hill. Sixty percent of state legislators surveyed said they could find the $2.4 million needed within the $4.5 billion the state spends annually on K-12 public education to fund U.S. history Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.

The landmark 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act’s historic results have taken our school children to another galaxy in English, math, and science achievement. Now, the final frontier for the commonwealth is to restore the U.S. history MCAS test, so all kids can access the “right stuff.”

Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

This op-ed appeared on the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, in the following news outlets:
The Patriot Ledger (print)
The Providence Journal
Breitbart News (excerpts)