MissionSTEM: Building Our Nation's Talent Pool

In a recent blog, I noted the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s famous speech on the nation’s space effort. That speech is especially relevant today in light of NASA’s current work to launch humans to destinations in deep space. These missions will involve formidable challenges, but they will drive the creation of exciting new capabilities and unprecedented technologies. One thing is clear: such an awesome undertaking will require the best talent our nation has to offer, just as it did in 1962 when President Kennedy vowed that America would lead the world in space exploration.

In 2009, more than 1.5 million U.S. citizens earned bachelor’s degrees in this country, but only 4.4 percent were in engineering, and only 1.1 percent were in the physical sciences. Only 2.4 percent of our undergraduates earned degrees in computer sciences and only 1.0 percent in mathematics. When we consider the numbers of women and minorities earning degrees in these fields, the situation is even worse. According to the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 0.8 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned in 2009 were by women in engineering and only 0.2 percent of those earned were by African Americans in engineering. These numbers are simply unacceptable for a world leader in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) like the United States.

At NASA, we take seriously our responsibility to help inspire our nation’s future scientists and engineers and provide them with experiences and opportunities. We also want the nation’s STEM degree programs to be more welcoming, supportive, and accessible to all students. With that in mind, this week we launch MissionSTEM.nasa.gov, a Web site created by our Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity, to assist colleges and universities in strengthening their STEM programs. MissionSTEM informs our grantee universities and science centers and museums of their EO compliance responsibilities, but it goes far beyond compliance. The Web site also will connect NASA with its grantees, professional STEM organizations, and other interested stakeholders, to creatively address issues such as recruitment and retention of diverse students. It will serve as a conduit for information-sharing on topics of common interest, such as promising practices to lead educational institutions that help create more inclusive learning environments and more broadly diverse student bodies.

Where will we find our future STEM talent? We will find it in every community, in every university and college, and in students of every socio-economic background. The talent is out there. It always has been. I am confident that American students have the intelligence, curiosity, and tenacity to excel in STEM fields. We, as a nation, must commit to encouraging and supporting them to pursue their dreams. Take a few minutes to look at MissionSTEM.nasa.gov and see how you can help foster the future talent for America’s STEM workforce.

Working with Industry Key to NASA's Future

Today I had the pleasure of meeting with two groups of workers in Alabama that are critical to ushering in NASA’s new era of spaceflight. First, I met with one of NASA’s key commercial partners — the team at United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Alabama. I went there to talk about the progress we are making to return NASA space launches to U.S. soil, develop the next generation of spacecraft that will take us farther than ever before, and continue our cutting edge science missions.

Just last month, NASA announced that ULA has completed the fifth and final milestone for its Commercial Crew Development Round 2 agreement with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

With the completion of these milestones, ULA establishes a technical foundation for potentially certifying its Atlas V rocket for crewed missions. It also marks the development of the design criteria for the rocket’s emergency detection system, which would allow crew members to escape if something were to go wrong with either the launch vehicle or spacecraft.

The development of a commercial crew industry is critical for NASA because it will ensure we launch American astronauts from U.S. soil, fueled by American ingenuity, American companies and American workers. This new way of doing business will also reduce the cost of missions to low Earth orbit while allowing NASA to focus our resources on deep space missions back around the moon, to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.

The other team I met with is hard at work on doing just that. Just down the road from ULA at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, NASA workers are developing our Space Launch System that will provide an entirely new capability for deep space human exploration.

Designed to be flexible for launching payloads and spacecraft, including NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will take humans beyond low Earth orbit, SLS will enable the agency to meet the Obama Administration’s goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.

My visits to ULA and Marshall gave me a chance to see NASA’s new era in spaceflight taking shape. And more importantly, I got to meet some of the exceptional men and women who are bringing it to life.