NASHVILLE — Thursday, millions of teachers, students, and space enthusiasts worldwide will celebrate the extraordinary achievements of our modern-day explorers.
Space Day, an annual grass-roots event, demonstrates that exploration still plays a vital role in our modern world - a world where children turn to movies and video games for a sense of adventure because they feel as if all the mountains have been climbed, as if all the hidden valleys and darkest jungles have been mapped, and there is nothing significant left to discover.
Astronauts, like the seven tragically lost in the space shuttle Columbia accident just threemonths ago, know better. They are true explorers, willing to risk their lives to escape the bounds of Earth's gravity. Their dedication to learning new things and going new places exceeds any fear of the dangers inherent in exploration.
Astronauts are not alone. There are actually thousands of explorers in America. Whether they explore space, decode the human genome, study Earth's global environment, probe the fundamental particles of matter, or create fascinating new technologies, these explorers, like the Columbia astronauts, have dedicated their lives to accomplishing things that have never been done before.
They are amazing people with amazing stories. They are American heroes. And yet too little media attention is given to their work, unless something goes wrong.
For the past three decades, the US has struggled unsuccessfully to increase students' interest and ability in science and engineering. Other nations that feature and value science more explicitly do not share this problem. Their students out-score Americans in science and math, both in middle school and in high school. Many of their brightest students come to America for graduate school because our research universities are considered the best in the world and our graduate programs in science have plenty of room because fewer American students are choosing to attend.
It is a troubling irony that even as the American society and economy become increasingly dependent on science and technology, fewer children are choosing careers in these vital areas. One of the primary reasons for this problem is that we are not holding up our explorers as role models for our children.
Take the Columbia tragedy as an example. Why did the media devote so much more airtime and so many more column inches to the tragic end of the Columbia explorers' mission than it did to the astronauts' journey of exploration while it was happening?
How can we expect our children to aspire to do great things if, as a nation, we do not highlight the work of our explorers and hold them up as mentors and role models?
America was created by explorers. Its strength, vigor, and spirit have been sustained and enhanced by this vital enterprise.
The crew of the space shuttle Columbia is a sterling example of this spirit of exploration. Our nation can honor their heroism by rededicating ourselves to exploration on all fronts. And through activities like Space Day, we can tell our children the stories of these heroes and role models as they are happening, not just after our explorers are gone.
• Rick Chappell is the director of the office of science and research communications and director of the Dyer Observatory at Vanderbilt University. He trained as an alternate for a space shuttle mission and was associate director for science at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.