China’s gambit to land on the Moon at the dawn of the year seemed to kick off a flurry of speculation as to whether a new race to our nearest neighbor in space had begun. That audacious exploit no doubt antagonized our country, its allies, and the media into conjecture. What it really uncovered, though, is that deep space travel and experimentation is simmering among the world’s superpowers — and may show some advances this year.

After Apollo 12 left lunar orbit this image of the Moon was taken from the command module. Image via NASA.

It might sound fun calling it a ‘race’ but traveling to space is expensive, and no one entity is willing to risk anything but a deliberate approach to reaching space if it doesn’t yield a genuine scientific, military or financial outcome.

We, humans, are naturally curious — and we love to explore. Continuing in the footsteps of Columbus, Magellan, and Captain Cook is a natural calling for our race, and yet it has been almost 50 years since man first walked on the Moon. The United States has had six successful landings, with 12 astronauts putting boot prints in the lunar dust. Nowadays, we are entering an exciting new era where not only are some countries competing to return to the Moon to assert their hegemony but independent interests are working equally hard for commercial goals.

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Indeed, our closest planetary neighbor is a place where territory could be claimed and plentiful resources mined for considerable profit. The building blocks are there to colonize the Moon and create a transportation system to take advantage of the low lunar gravity. The Moon is also an ideal launch pad to other destinations in the Solar System, and holds intriguing economic potential.

Still, the larger conversation shouldn’t fall on races, countries, and for-profit companies — it should fall squarely on preparing our current and next generation of students for the exploration of outer space beyond low-Earth orbit. It should focus on education, science, and exploration, towering above such petty grievances.

STEM studies speak broadly of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but each of those elements is crucial to a degree in modern-day Space Studies. Kids’ dreams of astronauts, space stations, satellites, and space travel are taught in programs emphasizing the political, economic, legal, commercial, scientific and technical challenges comprising this complex and rapidly changing discipline. In fact, most curriculums are designed to exceed the challenges typically associated with humankind’s exploration and usage of space and include space weapons, weather, spacecraft, and other transportation systems — literally, an abundance of STEM-related disciplines.

While we are on the cusp of space-related developments that really can help all of mankind, we would be best served by gathering to collaborate not only on science and space travel but also on education and training to best prepare tomorrow’s STEM leaders for service in a diverse, global society.

This is a guest contribution from Dr. Edward Albin, Program Director and Associate Professor of Space Studies for American Public University System’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.