15-17 Story 1: Astrotwins: An astronaut motivates kids to study science, math and engineering


Synopsis: As a kid, did you ever dream of becoming an astronaut and flying a rocket ship into space, but figured you weren’t good enough in science and math to do it? Our guest, a former U.S. astronaut admits he wasn’t the best young student in school in those subjects, but later on he grew fascinated by them and turned his new-found interest into becoming a Navy pilot and then a member of NASA’s Space Shuttle team. He talks about his new young readers’ book, and how he hopes it will encourage boys and girls to go into science, math and engineering.

Host: Gary Price. Guest: Mark Kelly, retired astronaut, author of the novel, “Astrotwins: Project Blastoff,” a young reader book.

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Astrotwins: An astronaut motivates kids to study science, math and engineering

Gary Price: Albert Einstein once said that science is “Nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” Easy for him to say – he was the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who developed the “general theory of relativity” and contributed greatly to our knowledge of quantum mechanics. To many of us, however, science and math are intimidating, and it’s hard enough just to get through the grade school and high school courses with passing grades, let alone become a famous scientist. Sometimes, though, the interest and the expertise in these subjects come at a later age, so maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to give them up. That was the experience of retired astronaut, Mark Kelly. He says that he and his identical twin, Scott, who is now beginning a one-year mission on the International Space Station, were not the most likely candidates for space exploration when they were kids…

Mark Kelly: You Know we were, especially in the beginning, I don’t think we were the best students. When I was in grammar school and middle school, as I got older and more mature I took that stuff more seriously. And we both, after college wound up going into the Navy to be pilots, and then we both became Navy test pilots. And it’s from there that we applied to NASA, to the astronaut program.

Price:  Mark Kelly would like more boys and girls to be interested – and not afraid of – the sciences and math, so he wrote a young person’s novel about how a group of kids get together to build and launch a space ship all on their own. The book is titled Astrotwins: Project Blastoff, and it features twin brothers named “Mark” and “Scott” and their grandfather, Joe. Mark and Scott? It makes you wonder how much of this story is biographical…

Kelly: Well, let me put it this way, at that age I was probably capable of building a go-kart, not a rocket or a spacecraft. So it’s loosely based on my brother and I and loosely based on my grandfather – you know where he lived, and where we grew up, and my parents, and the friends are fictional. But it’s fun to write a book about kids doing something really exciting. Kids have great imaginations, and for them to read this book and to see this scenario where maybe they decide to build a rocket ship, could be motivating.

Price:  Kelly says that he doesn’t remember when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in July of 1969, when he was five years old, but he did have an interest in space travel at an early age…

Kelly:   You know I think like a lot of kids, I was really interested in it when I was younger. You know I think I was also a realist about it. I didn’t really think I’d ever grow up to be an astronaut. But I did later find out that, you know, if you work hard, and you put yourself into careers that you think you can do well in, and you do a good job in them, whether it’s, you know, flying planes in the military like me, or being the best engineer or the best scientist you can, sometimes will pay off. And, you know, I was about 31 or 32 years old, I was selected to be an astronaut. You know, they gotta pick somebody.

Price:  In the book, there are several young girls who are also on the team of rocket builders, and Kelly says it’s something that he wanted to focus on in his story. Research shows that girls begin to lose interest in science and math in junior high and high school, and he wanted to show them that they shouldn’t think of the sciences, math and engineering being subjects that are mainly for boys…

Kelly: That’s part of my goal is to not only get kids in general interested in this, but to show young women and young girls that science and engineering and math is not something to be afraid of. Everyone of my space flights, there was either a woman on my space shuttle crew or on board the space station that contribute as positively as any man does on those missions. There is a role for women in every one of these jobs, whether it’s an astronaut or fighter pilot. It’s sometimes hard to get young women to understand that.

Price:  Not only are the girls in the story important to the space ship project, they were accepted as totally competent — the “go-to” team members – by the young boys working on the ship. Something you don’t see in many children’s books…

Kelly: This was my opportunity to put my own thoughts and how would hope that things would typically work out. I don’t think it’s farfetched to see a young woman to be kind of in charge and running the show here. I’ve seen it before in my career. Hopefully it will motivate young girls to go into science and math and engineering, and also young boys. We have a problem here in this country in that over the last 20 years or so, we have a more difficult time to get people to go into STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math and we need to turn that around. If we don’t, it’s going to be harder to compete globally with other countries.

Price:  But how do other countries do it? How do they consistently produce students with higher math and science courses than the United States?

Kelly: You look at where we, as a nation, perform compared to other countries in math and science, you know we lag behind a lot of Asian countries: South Korea, certainly, Japan, China even. We could do better than that. We typically at the university level do better than everywhere. We have a great university system. But secondary, high school education, middle school – there’s a lot of work there that we certainly can do. And part of it is just keeping kids interested in these fields.

Price:  Kelly says that one way to create excitement for the sciences and math among young people in America is to commit to a big project like we did back in the 1960s, when we pulled out all the stops to be the first country to land a man on the moon…

Kelly: Certainly if we decided as a country, I mean I’m not talking only the government – but let’s say the White House, and the Congress and then the country as a whole — everybody decided it would be a great thing to send people to Mars for the first time, that is certainly something we could rally around, and would create an incredible amount of interest in science and engineering. You know that’s a big project though. It would take a big commitment over a long period of time. I think we should do it. I know there are a lot of people out there that think it’s a great idea. The budget for something like that would be substantial. But I truly believe when we try to do hard things in engineering we get so much back, you know in the technologies that we create, the industries that we create, it’s money well-spent. It goes back into our economy, in jobs, in good jobs here on earth. The money isn’t really spent in space, it’s spent here on the ground. There’s a huge benefit in doing it. So I would love to see that.

Price:  And the Americans who are in middle school, junior high and high school are the ones who can make it happen. Kelly writes for these young people in “Astrotwins,” but he is careful not to dumb the book down. There are mathematical equations and a good amount of science in the story, despite some trepidation on the part of his editors…

Kelly: Yeah we had that discussion a number of times. You know I wanted to push the limit. You know there’ll be some kids who look at the rocket equation in there and they’ll be like, “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” But there’ll be some other kids that’ll say “Cool, there’s algebra in here.” A little bit, not too much. There’s explanation of Newton’s three laws and other things, and I felt it’s pushing the envelope a little bit for some kids. And other kids that’ll maybe cause them, you know, to take off in their math career. I’ve even had some adults who read the book said, “Yeah, I didn’t get that rocket equation thing.” But that’s okay. They don’t have to get all of it.

Price:  No doubt a lot of kids will read his book, and dream of a career in science. What advice does he give young people who might want to follow in his footsteps, but don’t think they’re smart enough?

Kelly: Well, I mean that would have been me. When I was especially around that age, you know 12 years old and getting ready to start middle school, I was not the best student. I certainly had more D’s than B’s on my report card at that age. But if you focus on something, especially when you get a little bit more mature, and your attitude about things change a little bit, but if you develop an interest in it and are willing to work hard it’s remarkable what people can accomplish. I wound up eventually getting a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. When I was 12 I didn’t think that would ever happen.

Price:  To read how a group of boys and girls built a rocket ship and find out which “astronaut” went into space in it, pick up Mark Kelly’s young reader’s novel, Astrotwins, available at stores and online. You can learn more about our guests on our website, and listen to programs from our archives at Viewpointsonline.net and Stitcher.