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Still reaching for Mars, with rockets and raw eggs

The intense, hands-on experience of launching rockets in competition helps students build real-world skills to solve problems and overcome challenges.

Competitors talk during the “Rockets on the Hill” breakfast reception for the Team America Rocketry Challenge on Capitol Hill.
Douglas Graham / CQ Roll Call / Getty

I believe that the first person who will set foot on Mars is starting the school year off in an American classroom right now. And it’s up to us — policymakers, business leaders, parents, teachers and mentors — to prepare him or her for the inevitable barriers and challenges that come with conquering new frontiers. The achievements that require the explorers of tomorrow to aim high start with fundamental skills in critical thinking, communications, collaboration and problem solving. We must ensure that our students are empowered to take action to resolve conflicts, test hypotheses, consider alternatives and evaluate results.

Time and again across the United States aerospace industry, problem-solving has been the key to unlocking new possibility. The 1960s saw the first human spaceflight program of the U.S. The nation’s first seven astronauts were powered by two million innovators who tested the boundaries of humans and their machines. Manned missions to the moon soon followed. And from the moment the crew of Apollo 13 told Houston there was a problem, teams banded together to create a solution to bring them home safely when the margin for error was razor-thin.

Instilling this kind of teamwork and problem-solving in the next generation of scientists and engineers is why we continue to sponsor the Team America Rocketry Challenge in partnership with the National Association of Rocketry each year. I’ve witnessed firsthand how the intense, hands-on experience of launching rockets in competition helps our students build real-world skills to solve problems and overcome challenges. And I’d be lying if I wasn’t also hoping the competition continues to inspire the next generation of great American aerospace innovators.

The premise of TARC is simple. Every year we challenge student teams with a mission: Design a rocket to protect one or more raw-egg “astronauts” and fly it to meet specific targets for altitude and flight duration. However, meeting these objectives is anything but simple. Most students will scramble a few eggs as they refine their designs, and in the process they develop the skills they will need to work in our industry and the passion to do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Adult mentors are critical to guide students on this journey. A good mentor does more than teach students to build a rocket. He or she makes an abstract news story about NASA’s latest launch real. He or she convinces students that the long hours tinkering and the late nights studying are worth the effort. He or she makes students believe they are in fact capable of developing the technology that will take us farther into space than we have ever gone before.

Fortunately, TARC teams are well advised by mentors from the National Association of Rocketry and TARC’s industry partners, companies that recognize and embrace the importance of developing the next generation of talent. The Boeing Company is one of these partners, and supports teams across the country from California to Texas and Alabama.

Earlier this year, Boeing’s support took one team from Oak Park High School in California all the way to TARC’s National Finals in Washington, D.C. For three of the students, it was their first time on an airplane (a Boeing 737-800, of course). Team members got the opportunity to meet their congresswoman and compete against the top rocketry teams from all across the U.S., ultimately placing in the top third. Alumni from the school’s rocketry program have gone on to degrees in materials engineering, aerospace engineering, computer science and other STEM fields.

We’re proud of the students from Oak Park, and the 5,000 other students who participate in TARC each year. It will take an all-hands-on-deck effort to develop the tens of thousands of future scientists, engineers and astronauts that our industry is looking to hire over the coming years. Fortunately, our companies understand the challenge and are committed to meeting it, from individual engineers all the way to CEOs. In fact, earlier this month our industry’s leaders in STEM and workforce gathered in Washington, D.C., along with champions from education and government, to discuss ways to work together to make our workforce more robust and better prepared for our future challenges.

Boeing understands the importance of a strong talent pipeline, and is stepping up with solutions to prepare the next generation of thinkers, problem solvers and aerospace innovators. With the rollout of its recently-announced “100 Days of Learning” program, students and teachers can access free math and science curricula to help foster the curiosity, creativity and collaboration required for productive problem-solving. As we have learned through TARC, there is no replacement for skill development through hands-on experiences.

Space systems and technologies have increasingly become a critical part of our nation’s economic, scientific and national security capabilities. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Without space systems, for example, the operational effectiveness of U.S. military forces would be reduced while civil financial and communications capabilities could become degraded or disrupted. And without continued advancements in commercial aviation, American competitiveness against European, Chinese, Brazilian or Canadian manufacturers could be undermined.

What’s more, the economic impact of the U.S. aerospace industry is astounding. Boeing’s workforce and supply chain alone supports more than two million U.S. jobs. It’s up to us — as educators, professionals and policymakers — to ensure that we continue to build upon our country’s achievements thus far and exceed the national imagination into the future.

Whether it’s sending a raw egg into the air, a plane into the sky or a spaceship to Mars, the future of U.S. aerospace innovation starts with building a solid foundation from which our students can think critically, solve problems and tackle the challenges we haven’t even thought of yet.

David F. Melcher is president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. Melcher joined AIA from Exelis Inc., where he served as president and CEO. Following a 32-year career in the U.S. Army, he joined ITT Corporation first as VP, Strategy and Business Development and then as president, ITT Defense and Information Solutions, before becoming the inaugural Chief Executive at Exelis following its spinoff from ITT in Oct. 2011. Melcher also led Exelis through its merger with Harris Corporation in May 2015. Reach him @AIAspeaks.

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