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Opinion by David F. Radcliffe

A Challenge Equal to Space

Earth’s unmet needs inspire a new generation.

Tomorrow’s engineers are drawn to problems of water, food, shelter, energy, and social justice.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space and the first to orbit the Earth. Three weeks later Alan Shepard became the first American in space, on Freedom 7’s suborbital flight. In July, Virgil “Gus” Grissom launched into space in the Liberty Bell 7, validating the human ability to perform in space by manually controlling the spacecraft’s orientation. Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov followed a few weeks afterward in Vostok 2, becoming the first person to remain in space for more than 24 hours. So many firsts were achieved in just four short months.

It was a time of Cold War tensions, yet paradoxically it was also a time of innocence. It was a time for heroes and unabashed national pride, when there seemed to be no boundaries to technological achievement. The sky was no longer the limit, literally.

The year 1961 was also the beginning of a period of major social change and political upheaval. The first Freedom Riders traveled from New York to New Orleans in May. Britain granted self-government to its colony of Uganda. Amnesty International was founded. Bob Dylan recorded his first album. East German troops began constructing the Berlin Wall. President Kennedy increased the number of American advisers in Vietnam. A new consciousness was stirring that eventually would begin to question many of the implicit, epistemological assumptions underlying engineering.

As a 9-year-old living in far-off Australia, I listened to all the U.S. space launches on Voice of America and maintained a series of scrapbooks with newspaper clippings, including very grainy images of Soviet cosmonauts and their spacecraft. Apart from making me want to be an astronaut, the excitement of the early space programs was a major influence on my choosing to study engineering.

When President Kennedy declared that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” engineers and others took up the challenge. They succeeded through a combination of ingenuity, ample resources, belief in themselves, and some good fortune. We should never forget that three astronauts lost their lives in the Apollo program: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – all engineers.

As the generation that was inspired by the early human spaceflights now approaches retirement age, the question arises: What will inspire the next generation of engineers?

Among the unplanned outcomes of the Apollo program were several stunning pictures of the Earth taken by the astronauts, most notably “Blue Marble” (taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972). This image fundamentally altered how we “see” our planet and ourselves. From the vantage point of space, Earth suddenly seemed a singular, lovely but fragile ecosystem. Thus what many consider the most daring and ambitious engineering challenge of the 20th century, the race to the moon, serendipitously provided humanity with the iconic image of Earth’s vulnerability.

The “Blue Marble” continues to energize an environmentally conscious generation to use its engineering knowledge to tackle the pressing global grand challenges of this century, like providing sustainable water, food, shelter, energy, and infrastructure that allow people to reach their full potential. A new understanding of engineering is emerging, one that is more inclusive and that blends human, social, and technical considerations, and even includes notions like social justice. This change in the conversation about the role(s) of engineering in society has its origins in the social movements and consciousness raising that ran parallel to the space program 50 years ago.

Just as an earlier generation was inspired to become engineers by the technological challenge of the early space program, so a new generation of young people, in developed and developing countries, is attracted to engineering by the opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives through meeting these global grand challenges – their Sputnik moment.


David F. Radcliffe is the Kamyar Haghighi Head and Epistemology Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education.




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