NASA and Challenger Deep

Last night, NASA was again a part of exploration history. But this time, it was a mission below, not above the Earth. Kevin Hand, a NASA astrobiologist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was a member of the team that supported acclaimed filmmaker James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic) in the first successful human solo mission to the deepest part of Earth’s ocean, Challenger Deep, in the middle of the Pacific. Kevin, who was among a small group of expedition members to greet Cameron when he emerged from his 6.8 mile excursion under the sea, will analyze samples the filmmaker brought back to see what they might tell us about the possibility of life under the ocean of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. The Earth’s deep ocean environment provides the closest analog to conditions expected for the Europa ocean, which NASA’s Galileo spacecraft first discovered in 2003.

Cameron, who had worked and dove with Kevin as part of Cameron’s earlier Aliens of the Deep IMAX, asked the astrobiologist to join him on this expedition and invited him to analyze the samples he brought back.

Cameron made his historic ocean descent in a specially designed submarine he calls the Deepsea Challenger. The 2.5 story sub descended to the Challenger Deep in 2 hours and 36 minutes. After several hours exploring this never-before seen part of the ocean sea-floor, Cameron made a roughly 70-minute trip back to the surface. Kevin, who serves as JPL’s Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration, is eager to analyze both the water and sediment samples, and subjecting them to temperatures and radiation levels known to exist on the surface of Europa.

While Cameron and his expedition partner, the National Geographic Society, are most interested in what his Deepsea Challenger expedition will tell us about life in the deepest part of the Earth, JPL’s Kevin Hand will bring NASA closer to unraveling the mystery about the possibility of life in one of the farthest points in our solar system.

Congratulations to James Cameron and Kevin Hand for this amazing exploratory achievement.

NASA and America Need Young Engineers to Take the Nation to New Heights

Today, I am in Atlanta on the campus of Georgia Tech for a “Day of Engineering” Facebook pep rally to kick off the President’s new STAY WITH IT campaign devoted to recruiting, retaining and graduating 10,000 engineers each year to maintain America’s competitive edge. Corporate leaders, educators and students have gathered for dialogue and panel discussions on the dire need to increase the number of American engineers. Fourteen universities from across the nation are participating via Facebook viewing parties. Spearheaded by Intel President & CEO, Paul Otellini, who is also a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, the STAY WITH IT campaign will provide mentors and other supports to increase the number of American engineering graduates which has fallen woefully behind other surging economies and has led to a shortage of skilled workers for American jobs.

More than 65 companies have already committed to doubling their 2012 summer engineering internships, including Intel, GE and DuPont – making an overall $70 million investment in giving students valuable hands-on experience. In addition, engineering deans from some of the nation’s top universities – including Georgia Tech – have developed a gold seal standard of excellence for colleges and universities focused on improved retention and graduation rates.

The participation of NASA and Intel is particularly important because aerospace and computer technology are clearly the growth industries of the future; but the only way to ensure that growth is by maintaining a constant pipeline of qualified workers. The centerpiece of our efforts to overcome close the skills gap is the engagement of more students in the study of science, technology, engineering and math or the STEM disciplines.

NASA is now embarking on ambitious agenda of deep space exploration that will carry our astronauts to places where we have never been, including an asteroid and eventually Mars. We need engineers to help us design the new rockets and capsules that will carry us there. We need scientists and researchers to help us develop materials to withstand the stresses of deep space exploration, to sustain humans for long-duration stays in space, to make air transportation quicker, safer and more efficient and to aid us in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos and improve life here on Earth.

My message to the students participating in Georgia Tech’s Day of Engineering was simple: Stay With It! Stay with your studies. Stay with your research. Stay with your dreams as you prepare to take your rightful place as the next great generation of American engineers, innovators and leaders.