A Lost Generation of Youth: Where NASA Went Wrong

written by David Mixson

Perhaps NASA’s greatest mission is to inspire our youth. Perhaps NASA’s greatest failure is that we haven’t done a good job doing that in a very long time.

If you were a teenager in 2020, you never saw NASA launch astronauts into space during your teenage years. If you entered college in 2020, you last saw astronauts blast off into space when you were ten years old.

What a travesty!

A Look at the Present

NASA canceled the Shuttle in 2011 without a replacement and went eight years without a launch vehicle to carry astronauts into space. What did NASA do during those eight years to inspire our youth to dream the impossible, explore the unknown, and study math and science?

ANSWER: Set up posters at College Career Days around the country talking about what we did in the past and what we’re going to do in the future.

Burt Rutan said this in a TedTalk.

“I want to start off by saying, Houston, we have a problem. We’re entering a second generation of no progress in terms of human flight in space. In fact, we’ve regressed. We stand a very big chance of losing our ability to inspire our youth to go out and continue this important thing that we as a species have always done.

“And I feel very strongly that it’s not good enough for us to have generations of kids that think that it’s okay to look forward to a better version of a cell phone with a video in it. They need to look forward to exploration. They need to look forward to colonization. They need to look forward to breakthroughs. We need to inspire them because they need to lead us and help us survive in the future.”1

And Rutan said all that in 2006 when the Shuttle was still flying.

Several years later, Rutan spoke at Oshkosh about youth again, this time about the importance of inspiring kids when they are young. In his presentation, Rutan made this point:

“New Space investors and developers Paul Allen, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, John Carmack, and Robert Bigelow were all inspired as children by big progress in Apollo.”2

Now, these men are building spaceships of their own.

A True Story

During the government shutdown in 2019, I was around a group of 11th-grade boys. When I mentioned I had been out of work for nearly a month because I worked for NASA, I got blank stares.

Nothing. No emotion. This seemed odd to me.

As I processed through the event later that night, I realized these boys had hardly any memories of NASA. They were nine when the Shuttle last flew. They were one year old when tragedy struck, and Columbia broke apart.

My heart sank. NASA has failed, failed, failed an entire generation of our youth. Shame-on-us.

My Story

I watched my first Shuttle launch in person when I was a senior in high school. It was a magical moment that shaped my life. Three years after that, I watched Challenger explode in real-time from the Auburn University student center.

Both events inspired me to want to work at NASA to do things that were bigger than just me.

Let me ask you this. Should we continue on the same trajectory and hope things will magically improve? I say enough is enough. Let’s take back the NASA our great-great-grandparents built with their blood, sweat, and tears.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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