OpEd: SPACE — Michigan’s Next Frontier

Space has always captured the human imagination, inspired new discoveries, and fueled a desire for exploration. In our modern era, no other space effort has sparked curious minds of all ages like NASA’s Apollo program. 

The Apollo Program landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, beginning with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. The mission achieved an ambitious goal set by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961 after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. Gagarin’s space flight put the Soviet Union ahead of the United States in the "space race," heightening the rivalry between the two Cold War nations. In an address to Congress, Kennedy famously said, "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Fifty years may seem like a long time ago, and Michigan may seem like a long way from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but the truth is that in 2019 our state is vital to the aerospace industry. A 2018 assessment by Price Waterhouse Coopers revealed that Michigan is ranked among the top 10 states in aerospace manufacturing attractiveness. Michigan received high marks in a number of categories important to aerospace manufacturers including labor, infrastructure, industry, economy, costs and tax policy. According to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Michigan is home to more than 600 aerospace-related companies. 

"The category of education is critical not only for companies trying to meet today’s demands, but in ensuring tomorrow’s workforce can help build the next generation of more efficient, sustainable aircraft," the Price Waterhouse Coopers assessment states. "An educated, technology-savvy, and diversified workforce is essential for maintaining US competitiveness in commercial aviation manufacturing."

This issue is especially important for Michigan. Across our region, we’re faced with an anticipated shortage in the future STEM workforce. How can we maintain our reputation as a mecca for aerospace engineering and manufacturing while also preparing today’s students for careers in the industry?

As NASA and other organizations prepare to celebrate Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary, the Michigan Science Center hopes to use this milestone as a catalyst to empower the next generation of astronauts, engineers, programmers, and physicists right here in southeast Michigan. In 2018, more than 40,000 students visited the Michigan Science Center and nearly 40 percent of those students received financial support from the museum’s Sponsors of Science program for underserved schools. In addition, more than 55,000 students experienced the Michigan Science Center programming in their own classrooms through the Traveling Science program and the new ECHO Distance Learning program. It’s a solid start to keeping the STEM spark alive and the work will continue in 2019.

After all, a new era in space exploration is just beginning. NASA’s Moon to Mars program is perhaps the most famous of these initiatives. This program will return humans to the moon and eventually send them to Mars. NASA also has plans to explore new areas of space, conduct experiments on the International Space Station, build high-tech aircraft, develop cutting-edge technologies and advance earth science. And, there is a place for Michigan companies and workers in each of these efforts.

Just as they were in 1969, curious minds today are continuing to explore important questions about our universe. Questions such as … how does the universe work? How did we get here? Are we alone? These questions will be answered by the next generation, and it is up to today’s educators to prepare them. Let’s help them get there as we reflect on the incredible achievements of the past and prepare for the next giant leap.

All throughout 2019, the Michigan Science Center will celebrate space with a variety of activities and events including World Space Party on April 12 and an Apollo 11 anniversary event on July 20. Learn more at Mi-Sci.org.

The article is part of a series, supported by the Michigan Science Center, exploring key regional issues in science over the next five years. Read more articles from this series and others from our collaboration with the Michigan Science Center here.
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