Worshiping the wrong heroes

May 5, 2011 - Reading time: 3 minutes

Charles Bolden put out a statement today on the 50th anniversary of American human spaceflight.  It begins (emphasis added):


May 5, 1961 was a good day. When Alan Shepard launched toward the stars that day, no American had ever done so, and the world waited on pins and needles praying for a good outcome. The flight was a great success, and on the strength of Shepard's accomplishment, NASA built the leadership role in human spaceflight that we have held ever since.

I was a teenager at the time and just sorting out the field of study I wanted to pursue. Though I never dared dream it growing up in segregated South Carolina, I was proud to follow in Alan's footsteps several years later and become a test pilot myself. The experiences I've had would not have been possible without Alan's pioneering efforts. The inspiration that has created generations of leaders to enlarge our understanding of our universe and to strive toward the highest in human potential was sparked by those early achievements of our space program. They began with Freedom 7 and a daring test pilot who flew the ultimate experimental vehicle that May day 50 years ago.

Giving astronauts full credit for the accomplishments of NASA's human spaceflight program is nothing new.  Many people (including people who work at NASA, and should really know better) view astronauts as a superhuman species, whose wisdom, wit, talent, and general prowess are the foundation of NASA's accomplishments.  I'm fairly certain that most astronauts, at one level or another, believe this too.  This notion has led to the corruption of the (already slanted) phrase "no bucks, no Buck Rogers" to the (even more slanted) phrase "no Buck Rogers, no bucks" - implying that without hugely egotistical military aviators as spokesmen, NASA has no hope of funding its programs.  Wonderful.

And that's why it's not surprising to hear someone give such wide-ranging credit to Alan Shepard, who wasn't an engineer or a scientist, for NASA's first manned suborbital flight.

But it does hurt a bit when that someone is NASA's administrator - even if he was also an astronaut. I've mentioned in the past, and will surely bring up again in the future, the roles I think astronauts and engineers play (and should play) at NASA.  At a time when we're trying to find ways to encourage more students to pursue STEM careers, leaders at all levels do themselves (and the rest of us) a disservice by failing to address the fact that a STEM career will not bring you any glory (or even much recognition for good work), will not make you rich (or even moderately wealthy), and will not make yours a household name (face it; the odds are really against that one).  By giving such fawning attention to Alan Shepard, Bolden minimizes the real, profound, backbreaking efforts of thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians who actually made the flight possible.

So on this, the 50th anniversary of NASA's first manned suborbital flight, let's also recognize the people who actually made it possible: the thousands of smart people who worked long hours under stressful conditions to send some test pilot into space, and (probably against their better judgement) bring him back safely.  It was your pioneering efforts that inspired many of us to pursue engineering and follow in your footsteps.  You may not have inspired Charlie Bolden, but you did inspire me.  I hope that counts for something.