For those of you who don’t already know, earlier this month (October 4 – 10) was World Space Week. Started in 1999 by the UN, World Space Week (WSW) is (in their own words) “an international celebration of science and technology, and their contribution to the betterment of the human condition”. It aims to educate people about what our advances in our understanding of space has done for the human race, achieving this through a range of events taking place during the week.
It goes without saying that our understanding of space has allowed us to do some pretty incredible things. The launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 opened the door to a huge number of new discoveries, ranging from satellites to interplanetary probes, orbital travel to the possibility of finding life.
Yet despite WSW, many people still don’t realise just how significant space is to their daily life. This is through no fault of their own – after all, not everyone has a keen interest in Astronomy as an academic subject – but even so, do we owe it to ourselves to take an interest?
One way in which this is having a noticeable impact is on the number of people studying Astronomy, especially at University. The Institute of Physics published a report in 2012 which found that there was actually a 13.8% reduction (325 to 280) in the number of undergraduate students on Astronomy first-degree courses in the UK between 2004/05 and 2009/10. This negative trend does not bode well for Astronomy as a subject, with it being the only subject named in the report with a reduction in the student intake.
This perhaps explains why there has been a sudden push for outreach programs relating to Astronomy – something which agencies including NASA and the European Space Agency have started to take very seriously, and as such do very well. They are then supported on a local level by organisations ranging from charities to academic institutions, including our very own University. Southampton’s program not only spans all school Key Stages, but also sees talks hosted for the general public. It is clear that a lot of effort is being put into outreach, with the hope of reversing statistics such as those mentioned above.
There have even been some slightly more tongue-in-cheek approaches to getting people interested in space. NASA went as far as to approach indie gaming company Squad (creators of space simulator Kerbal Space Program) and between them they created the “Asteroid Redirect Mission” scenario for the game (based on the NASA mission of the same name). The game has even made it as far as the classroom, with a variant for schools being developed at the moment. And while this might seem like a silly idea, there is definitely sense behind the madness. As a player myself, I can definitely say that the game encouraged me to become more interested in space and astronomy, and this is something reflected in the wider community. Perhaps more ideas like this are what we need.
Whatever form they take, programs that allow those outside of the discipline to interact with Astronomy itself are definitely a good thing, and should certainly be encouraged. And while this may take place in a school environment, it should by no means be limited to that. Anyone who wants to learn more about the field should be encouraged to do so, and thus ushering in a new generation of Astronomers.
I’m no rocket scientist, but the study of astronomy has done quite a bit for the human race. Perhaps now is the time that we begin to take an interest ourselves, look to the stars, and leave our own mark on the next steps in scientific progress.