Send Teenagers Into Space

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No, I’m not being a grumpy parent. A nonprofit organization hopes to send as many as 200 teachers into space each year aboard private rockets. I think we should launch teenagers there instead.

I understand the argument for teachers: there are educators who genuinely think space exploration is cool, and want to use it to encourage their students to study science. Boosters of manned missions see education as a leverage point for recruiting future boosters. NASA itself pursued the idea up until Christa McAuliffe was killed in the Challenger explosion in 1986.

"We believe that space should be for everyone" explained the program manager for Teachers In Space, "and what better group of people to demonstrate that than teachers."

Only it’s not for everyone. There’s a good case to be made that it’s not for human beings at all.

Outer space is an incomprehensibly dangerous place. Nowhere else are people more threatened by circumstances and less likely to survive mishaps. The exploration business makes amateur mountain peak climbing seem tame, if not outright boring. And safe. Sending teachers into this environment makes about as much sense as sending them into combat.

There’s a lot that could be done to better promote space exploration, and it has everything to do with adventure.

Back in the 18th Century, scientists tagged along on merchant routes and military expeditions. Much of what they discovered or studied wasn’t the stuff of high drama — cataloging beetle species and weather measurements were no more awe-inspiring than they would be now — but the journeys themselves were full it it. These scientists were explorers, and they were celebrated for their fearlessness (unless, of course, they got killed along the way, which happened quite regularly). It helped that they were really, really young (by our standards of life expectancy). 

Collecting flower and plant seeds might sound dull, but doing it a gazillion miles away from civilization and home, and doing so without any backup, was the stuff of legend.

Teachers are just too obviously symbols on their rides into space, even if they participate in some study of their sleeping habits (or something) up there. They’re tourists, and that doesn’t teach anybody much of anything. We need to capture that citizen scientist and adventurer spirit of exploration in centuries past, and I think the way we could do it is by launching teenagers instead.

Think about it: your average teen today has more education than many adults could have even imagined a generation ago, not to mention more technology at her or his fingertips than was used by NASA since its founding. How about creating engaging, risky, utterly rocking projects for them to pull off, and then hooking them up to enough real-time social media so they can share their every burp with their followers? Why not create tasks that only teenagers could do? You could include them in the development and prep for future launches. Make space exploration the realm of the very few, the very talented, and the most adventurous of every new generation.

Outer space isn’t a museum in need of a docent, it’s a rough-and-tumble abyss full of unimaginable risks. Who better than teenagers to ignore those facts and really engage in the experience…and, in doing so, provide the real catalyst for getting the rest of us to pay attention again?

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