Star trekking and the next generation

20 Dec 2007

Not content with having been a Topgun fighter pilot, part of the US Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme, or an astronaut with NASA, Joe F Edwards Jr (pictured) is using his retirement to tour the world.

He’s not on holiday. Once again he has a mission. This time it is speaking to children about the important role science and technology play in their everyday lies and hoping to inspire them to follow a career in these areas.

As part of the recent Science Week Ireland 2007 organised by Discover Science & Engineering, Edwards gave a public lecture on the science of space, discussing topics that appealed to younger science fans such as what astronauts eat and whether Homer’s crisp-eating scene from The Simpsons is actually possible.

Having retired from NASA and the US Navy in 2000 Edwards did some work in the private sector and in 2002 was appointed as chairman and CEO of the National Science Centre in the US.

“The idea of science, mathematics and technology in education is something that is very important to me because it led me to the careers that I have had an opportunity to play a part in,” he explains.

“It’s not just an American or Irish thing, it’s global: technology has become an integral part of our lives and it is very important to emphasise it in the educational process.”

You could say that Edwards was destined to explore space. He was born in 1958, a year before NASA was established, so the space era was literally a part of who he was as he was growing up, he says.

He recalls the early days of space exploration when so many shuttles failed to launch, but this did not dampen his appetite for science and technology.

Interestingly, neither did the fact that Edwards did not witness the historic moon landing like most of his fellow Americans. At 12 years old he had only spent half of his life in the US, six years being divided between the UK and Turkey due to his father’s work.

“We were in Turkey when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon so I never got to see the live television images. I bought the audio record of the entire mission and I remember boring my parents to death by listening to it.”

A love of science and space was not enough on its own. After graduating from high school Edwards received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering followed by a graduate degree in systems engineering.

“For every astronaut the quality and effort that they put into their education cannot be overestimated as to the part that it plays.”

Edwards says that a prerequisite for becoming an astronaut is probably a love of learning. Many of his colleagues have several degrees, while one holds 10. It is a process of lifelong learning, he explains.

“I know for a fact that young people today share the same interest in science, math and technology that we do. You need look no further than the local video store, cinema, books, video games and cable television to prove it.

“The trick is realising that kids have that interest and for us to harness it: to take the kind of courses in primary and secondary education that allows them at the very least to have a better understanding of the world around them,” he adds.

Edwards believes that Ireland and the US have the same problem when it comes to bringing these science and technology skills to a younger generation: insufficient funding.

While science, engineering and technology open the door to a whole world of job opportunities for Irish schoolchildren, they may be thinking that none of these could live up to the exciting life of an astronaut.

“In my first week in NASA I remember one of the astronauts coming in and giving us a lecture. He said: ‘You know, I don’t know if being an astronaut is the best job in the world but I think it probably is the best job title in the world.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in that!”

Upon expressing my disappointment at not yet witnessing the first Irish man or woman in space Edwards says that in a way the Irish have been in space every time a US man or woman has gone into orbit because almost all of them have some Irish ancestry.

Edwards says space is rapidly being commercialised and predicts a day when it will be affordable for every man, woman and child to take a trip.

Currently the Russian space team will let you tag along for the cool price of €25m, but Richard Branson’s efforts to commercialise this is going to bring the price down, he explains.

“You’re going to have the opportunity to go yourself,” he tells me.

By Marie Boran