How Dallas' Back To Space Aims To Rekindle Moon-Landing-Level Excitement In STEM | Texas Public Radio

How Dallas' Back To Space Aims To Rekindle Moon-Landing-Level Excitement In STEM

May 14, 2019
Originally published on May 15, 2019 10:14 am

Fifty years ago this July, Neil Armstrong's words from the moon echoed across our globe: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

The Back to Space initiative in Dallas was recently launched to rekindle popular interest in space, especially among kids — the kind the 1969 moonshot inspired. 

Armstrong's now classic line during the Apollo 11 mission from 238,900 miles away represented the culmination of President John F. Kennedy's goal: reach the moon before decade's end. For a nation of students, that effort in the 1960s inspired many to eat and breathe science, technology, engineering and math.

"That generation who grew up then and went to college in the '70s developed more science, technology, engineering and math, art and music, than the entire history of mankind," Back to Space president Michael Gorton said.

Gorton spoke at the unveiling of a painting in Dallas featuring 10 living Apollo astronauts on April 3. Gorton told 200 people in Old Parkland Hospital's oak paneled debate chamber that the nation did great things back then.

"But we failed terribly with one thing," Gorton said. "That is — if I say the millennials, everybody knows what I'm talking about — the problem is, we changed the world so dramatically, but our kids are playing Fortnite upstairs.

"We've got to figure out how to fix that. And that's one of the primary goals of Back to Space."

The program was built to renew interest in space for all ages. There are Apollo astronauts like 89-year-old Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and students from across the country who are interested in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

Teens competed for 25 spots to be ambassadors with Back to Space.

The organization itself is the brainchild of a descendant of an Apollo astronaut. Danielle Dallas Roosa's grandfather was Stuart Roosa, who piloted the command module of Apollo 14.

"My grandfather went to the moon and a lot of people didn't even know that there were a couple more missions than Apollo 11," Roosa says. "That's why I originally started the company."

Roosa is a space nerd and former NASA intern, with experience in communications.

"I think there's a fundamental lack of interest in STEM, and the history of space is lacking. I just was shocked by that," Roosa says. "I kind of found my mission in life was to start using my background in producing and acting, and marrying that with space content."

Roosa says she's working with TV producers to put together a space-focused reality show with the Back to Space brand. She hopes networks will pick it up, to entertain and spark interest among teens. Some, like Anna MacLennan, need no spark.  

"STEM is a thing that like moves the world forward," MacLennan says. "Technological advances are arguably one of the main characteristics of societies as they‘ve grown, expand and get better."  

MacLennan, a Back to Space ambassador, is a sophomore at Anderson High School in Cincinnati. She raised money to get to Dallas for the unveiling of the painting, so she could interview attendee Al Worden. (Worden flew on Apollo 15 and was the first to space walk in deep space).  MacLennan says "Getting good at STEM and being able to build something out of nothing is… it's the way you make an impact on the world." 

These STEM ambassadors, like Katie Mulry of Richardson, are definitely about making an impact. The J.J. Pierce High School senior says she's encountered obstacles in the way of her science pursuits, even though she thought such obstacles would be gone by now. 

"I was a camp counselor one summer," Mulry says, "and they asked if I wanted to be an astronaut. I said yes. This little boy looks at me and he goes, 'You can't do that. You're a girl.'  

"I was shocked he thought that. Especially at 5 years old. So I said, 'You know who's commanding the International Space Station now?' It was Peggy Whitson. There are so many women in STEM and it's growing, for sure."

Mulry plans on being an astronaut. If Back to Space succeeds, she'll be joined by other students with the same dream.

Copyright 2019 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.