This week marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 – the mission that took the first humans to the moon. The pioneering journeys of Michael Collins, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and the late Neil Armstrong to our closest celestial neighbour was achieved through the determination and sacrifice of many, and not without significant political will and financial backing. This great feat of engineering, bravery and adventure inspired a whole generation, and continues to do so…or does it?
I recently learned of a Lego® commissioned survey* conducted by the Harris Poll, which aimed to find out opinions of space travel among children aged eight to twelve, and some of the results were striking. The questions asked were relating to the following:
- Interest in space exploration
- Desire to learn more about space exploration
- The primary learning source from which their interest arises
- Likelihood of a human going to Mars and when that may be
- Likelihood of humans living in outer space or another planet
- Desire to go to outer space or another planet
- Which careers are part of space exploration
- The students’ own career aspirations
From the 3000 children aged 8-12, 86% said they were interested in space exploration and 90% would like to learn more. Currently, 79% of the children surveyed cite teachers as their main source of learning and space inspiration, with 71% citing the internet and only 53% saying their interest is spurred by their parents.
Despite the rise of technology, it is encouraging to know that teachers still have a hugely important role in motivating and educating children. I was surprised to discover though how low the proportion of children saying their parents motivated them was. I suspect this may be related to a disparity between the amount of time these students spend with their teachers as opposed to their parents.
The future of human spaceflight is promising when most children (91%) foresee a human going to Mars. Chinese students are more ambitious though, as a greater proportion (24%) think that this will happen by next year. They are also significantly more likely (96%) to believe humans will live in outer space or on another planet compared to American (66%) and British (62%) children. Of course, the International Space Station has been in continuous habitation by humans since November 2000, but since the Apollo programme, humans have not ventured very far from the Earth’s surface.
When the children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, around three times as many kids in the UK and US would rather be YouTubers than Astronauts…!
One of the most striking results of the survey involves the students future ambitions. Despite their interest in space exploration, desire to learn more, and visions of seeing humans on Mars, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, around three times as many kids in the UK and US would rather be YouTubers than Astronauts…! Not only this, but it was the least desirable of the five career options following Teacher, Professional athlete and Musician. In China though, more than half of kids surveyed (56%) said they would like to be an Astronaut and it was the most preferred option. Why is there such a huge difference?
Perhaps American children see human spaceflight as a thing of the past; NASA already put men on the moon after all. Furthermore, Americans are also very well represented on the ISS with continuous representation. Perhaps British children see this as an unreachable goal for them. I certainly did when I was a child. Something reserved for the Americans, Russians and continental Europeans. This mindset only significantly changed once Tim Peake was selected as a British ESA Astronaut and sent to the ISS in 2015. Even now, the extent of British involvement in the European Space Agency seems uncertain, at least from an outsiders’ perspective.
Compare this to the Chinese space programme, which is still relatively young and enjoys financial and political backing. Perhaps the Chinese education system also highly values space exploration and thus the teachers have been able to motivate and inspire the children to consider this as a future career.
Although not covered by this survey, it would have been interesting to see Indian childrens’ perspectives on space exploration. With the launch of their Chandrayaan-2 mission, India hopes to become only the fourth nation to successfully land on the lunar surface. This new Space Race between India and China will surely encourage greater space exploration and inspire masses of children in their nations.
Ultimately, what may be required to boost astronaut aspirations in the UK and USA is a commitment to send humans back into deeper space. This may be as soon as 2024 if NASA’s Artemis programme goes as planned. In any case, I believe that there is an opportunity to inspire generations over the next 50 years with an increased human presence in space. Let us hope in 50 years time, we will be celebrating other space milestones alongside the centenary of the first humans on the moon.
* The surveys were conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of LEGO among kids from China (n=1,000), the United States (n=1,000), and the United Kingdom (n=1,000) aged 8-12 (May 30 to June 8, 2019) and 326 parents with at least one child age 5-12 (May 17-22, 2019) in China (n=250), the United States (n=326), and the United Kingdom (n=241). Child respondents were recruited via their parent or guardian. Samples in both surveys were weighted on demographic variables (including age, gender, region, and others) to match the distribution in the population. The online surveys are not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.