As Dr. Sally Ride and her fellow astronauts were launched into space from Cape Kennedy last month, perhaps a more significant, although certainly a far less visually spectacular, launching was taking place. A campaign was initiated by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials to stress the urgent need for critical thinkers in science and mathematics vital to the future of the space program.
For the first time a select group, predominantly women, from the nation's institutions of higher education attended the launching of Challenger VII. The educators toured the space center, conferred with the ground crew and some of the astronauts, and shared a front-row seat for the liftoff.
Among the educators present was Dr. Winston Thompson, vice-president of student services at Salem State College, Salem, Mass. She is also adjunct faculty of the Graduate School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And she serves on the faculty of the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) Program at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass. Therefore she is an influential figure in the Massachusetts academic community.
Although the fact that there is a severe shortage of science and math thinkers available in the United States was hardly news to the group, as evidenced by the recent findings of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the message from NASA took on a positive tone regarding the opportunities now available to women and minorities.
Dr. Thompson explained, ''NASA officials, particularly Dr. Curtis Graves, deputy director of academic services, focused on Ride as a role model for women and minorities, sources of talent that have yet remained untapped.''
Dr. Thompson added, ''Presently there is only one senior-level woman scientist at NASA, Dr. Nancy Boggess, a specialist in infrared research. The accessibility to NASA for minorities and women appears to come from a practical need rather than any aesthetic values, which is probably a healthy situation. They are beginning to recognize the fact that talent is in more than one gender and one race.''
To further illustrate NASA's point, Dr. Graves cited some examples. Only four PhDs in math and science graduated in the state of Maryland this year. Of the four, only two went into their fields of concentration. A $5,000 bounty was being offered by the city of Houston for a math or science teacher. Regarding economic issues, which translates into jobs, 40 percent of the cars, 30 percent of the televisions, 55 percent of the radios, and 93 percent of the motorcycles bought in this country are foreign made.
Dr. Thompson observed that NASA officials were addressing themselves to national security, not, however, as it pertains to military readiness but to the security of our national way of life.
On returning to Salem State, she gave NASA high marks for accomplishing its mission with the group. To her the message was clear: that the future development of NASA, as well as the economic security of the US, depends in part on the success today's educators have in identifying and preparing the critical thinkers of tomorrow.
Ms. Thompson sees her own role to be a ''change agent.''
She concluded, ''I must articulate the message that the time has come to reinstate excellence and discipline in all levels of education.''