Two years ago next Monday, NASA’s space shuttle program came to an end. During preparation for take-off, the commander of Atlantis, Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson of the Navy said, “The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We’re not ending the journey today; we’re completing a chapter in a journey that will never end.”Thankfully he is right. The journey is still going strong and moving forward.

In fact, NASA recently announced their new class of astronauts. The eight new astronaut candidates will compete for a stint at the International Space Station or — eventually — for a trip to an asteroid or Mars, places that NASA eventually hopes to visit.

While NASA continues to recruit and train astronauts, some solutions to out-of-this-world problems may be found in the general public. Last week, the White House and NASA announced a Grand Challenge to the public: find asteroids threats to Earth. Announced at NASA’s Industry and Partner day, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said, “This Grand Challenge is focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. We will also harness public engagement, open innovation and citizen science to help solve this global problem.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is a prime example of the importance problem solving skills.

As Capt. Ferguson said last year, NASA’s journey is definitely not slowing down – you can tell by just looking at their press releases; they are full steam ahead on a variety of important projects. But this makes me wonder if the next generation of students is ready to take on the challenge in space? And what will it take to get them there?

Some schools have already been thinking about this challenge, including ELT School Kuss Middle School in Massachusetts. When they expanded their school day
in 2006, they also partnered with NASA to become a NASA Explorer School . NASA Explorer Schools (NES) gives teachers of grades 4-12 materials on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects as well as access to NASA’s people, missions, research and facilities. Interested schools can sign-up on NASA’s website.

We know how important the STEM subjects are for students for so many jobs in the future – in technology, engineering, and laboratories. The continuing work at NASA adds one more important and exciting job to that list. But we know that schools, particularly in communities of concentrated poverty, do not always have enough time to teach these classes in addition to the other core classes. That’s why expanding learning time for students to ensure they have all the skills and opportunities they need to succeed is so critical – and, of course, to save our earth from asteroids.