You Can’t Get to Space Without Education

By David McGee

There are many ways to get to space. Not all of them include a rocket.

My introduction to space began in the U.S. Navy. I served as an aircraft electronic technician on S3-A Viking aircraft. After four years I returned home to Lompoc California next to Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) and began my new career as an electronic technician on the Shuttle program in 1980. After three years I was promoted to an un-degreed engineer. In 1987 as the program was being phased out at Vandenberg, I began work on the Atlas E program until the last one was launched in 1995. I switched to the Delta II/IV program at Vandenberg and continued until 2016 when I retired. I returned in 2018 for six months to assist in the launch of the last Delta II carrying the ICES at-2 satellite. I doubt I’ll ever step foot on the Moon, but thanks to my technical training, my work has been in space. That’s an achievement I’m not only proud of, but am working to share with the next generation.

The future of America’s space program depends on the investment we make in today’s students. From elementary school through advanced degrees, military service programs, or technical training, it’s crucial to introduce and encourage young people to play, experiment, and fall in love with science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) disciplines early in their educational careers.

California is a center of STEM innovation, and companies with space ambitions are working toward inspiring, developing, and training their future workforce. One program that continues to have great success is Think Together, the Golden State’s leading nonprofit provider of school improvement programs. The organization’s partnership with Boeing – a prime partner of NASA’s SLS rocket and Artemis Missions – has resulted in “more than $500,000 for STEM programing” in California, engaging more than 12,000 students in elementary, middle, and high schools in STEM education.

This year, another innovative program launched to provide college students in California the opportunity to receive hands-on STEM learning and job offers after graduation. The Accelerated Leadership Program accepts college sophomores and develops their skills to meet the needs of the critical workforce areas, including space-focused engineering and mechanics. This year, seven USC-Viterbi students were selected and are on their way to becoming the future leaders in space technology and innovation.

Virtual learning options are helping students acquire the skills necessary for a career in aerospace. FUTURE U, an educational partnership launched by Discovery Education and Boeing, provides cost-free, hands-on learning programming for middle and high school students. It’s a STEM curriculum that translates into fun, interactive lessons to inspire the next generation of leaders in space. The California Science Center also offers virtual field trips, as well as hosts the “Young Curators Program,” which offers middle school students weekly on-site sessions where they learn about flight dynamics, aircraft design, and living in space, among other STEM-focused topics.

Aerospace companies understand the desperate need to cultivate and nurture new talent. Throughout California, there are many private-public partnerships with universities working to advance skills training to satisfy the need for workers right now. But we also need to be focused on the future. We must ensure K-12 students have the tools they need to excel in STEM disciplines today so that they are ready for the aerospace careers of tomorrow.

Since I retired in 2016, I’ve volunteered as a mentor for FIRST Robotics, a high school robotics competition that challenges high school students to raise funding, design a brand, and build and program industrial-sized robots that compete against other teams. Sharing my knowledge and passion for space, technology, and mechanics is one way I can help inspire and prepare future leaders in aerospace. As a society, investing time, talent, and treasure to this mission will be paramount to our state and national success.

David McGee is a retired U.S. Navy veteran and avionics electronic technician. He worked on the Shuttle, Atlas-E, and Delta rocket programs as test engineer. He now serves as a mentor for local high school students.