Advances in technology have allowed us to push the boundaries of human experience. The last century has seen our trajectory soar, with our imaginations and commitment to innovation helping make ideas that were once the stuff of science fiction into a functional reality. This is exemplified by our ceaseless hunger to explore the further reaches of space.
With more widespread access to technology, the shape of our aerospace industries changed. Private companies are now among the primary contributors to space travel. While once the US was the dominant force in space travel, China has begun to emerge as the frontrunner in the new space race. One of the key elements that has helped these shifts in innovation is quality of education. A curriculum that places emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects provides students with significant advantages when they enter aerospace fields.
So where is the point at which education and advanced tech meet, and how can this be used to support the next generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts? Are there space travel subject areas that have been enhanced by educational technology (EdTech)? What advantages can be had from exploring the tech requirements of potential space colonists?
The teaching of STEM subjects in schools has been greatly enhanced thanks to the introduction of EdTech. Perhaps more importantly, as technology has become more affordable, a wider range of students have access to the advantages that this represents. As a result, there is potential for the next generation of space scientists to come from a more diverse range of backgrounds.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been instrumental in ensuring that the education students receive is of high quality, and covers topics that help kids to understand the challenges faced in aerospace fields. Recognizing the importance of making STEM subjects more accessible, like many other organizations, NASA continues to develop and host free online resources, many of which are space-specific, but also provide valuable insight into wider STEM opportunities and tools. Teachers can download lesson plans for K-12 students, and there are also elements directed at higher education and informal learning scenarios.
Augmented Reality (AR) has also found a foothold in STEM space teaching. NASA’s Spacecraft 3D invites students to interact with different varieties of virtual spacecraft in their classroom or home environments. They learn about the engineering behind the equipment’s various functions and how it is used in projects. Developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in collaboration with Google, the app also allows students to engage with NASA’s robotic missions, such as the Mars rovers.
Virtual reality (VR) has long been part of our technological lexicon. Over the decades there have been several attempts to introduce it into our entertainment spaces, without much success. But in recent years we have reached the point at which technology is both sufficiently advanced and financially practical for us to utilize it in a meaningful way.
One of the areas in which VR has been effective is in training complex and dangerous tasks for space missions in a safe environment. This applies to various roles within the aerospace industry, helping to ensure the new generation of space scientists have the best practical education before they are subjected to tasks that have to potential to result in injury or even death. There are some terrifying scenarios astronauts can face, and NASA’s VR lab employs four to six engineers with the responsibility to create realistic training environments on some highly complex tasks.
One of the primary training uses for VR is in extra-vehicular activities (EVA), preparing astronauts for the tasks they’ll undertake during spacewalks. This includes rescue simulations for the terrifying scenario of becoming detached from the vehicle and having to navigate back to safety using a backpack. VR is also used to practice robotics operations, such as performing complex functions using the space station arm.
Space travel is always an exciting prospect, and one of the areas of focus for the future is how we can live in space for significant periods. This can range from how astronauts’ health is affected by months or years spent in low gravity, to the practicalities of setting up colonies on potentially habitable planets. NASA has already released its plan outlining how human settlements will inhabit Mars, independent from Earth, by the early 2030s.
This will require in-depth training and education on the technology that will be essential to sustaining communities in some harsh environments. This includes some really basic things — many people still believe many myths about LED technology — and yet this will be essential to growing our food and remaining healthy. NASA has also placed importance on the development of pseudo-gravity, though current training is focused on utilizing POGO, a simulator that replicates the effects of partial gravity to prepare astronauts.
There are also efforts to bring the subject of space colonization into classrooms, giving students insight into the challenges that face settlers, alongside providing an interesting STEM module. The NASA Imagine Mars project provides online resources on the subject of building communities on the red planet. Activities include using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) to create plans for exploration vehicles and investigating the technology needed to overcome the environmental constraints on settlers.
Our ability to explore beyond our small blue planet is reliant upon our skill in creating and using advanced technology. As our plans become more ambitious, we must consider how we can prepare future generations of space travelers to use the tools they’ll need to survive in some harsh, dangerous environments. From introducing STEM subjects to a more diverse range of students to understanding what kind of lighting can help astronauts sleep better on long journeys, we must educate through the lens of essential technologies.