Those we train to think like scientists will always find new frontiers, writes the Buhl planetarium director

Forty-five years ago tonight, humanity first set foot upon the moon.

Those who gathered around their televisions on that extraordinary summer night will never forget the exuberance and pride that swept the nation. For those of us who were born after this watershed moment, it feels almost apocryphal. We don’t know what to make of it. It’s an event paradoxically imbued with the stale nostalgia and familiarity of history but also with the bold adventurism and accomplishment one always expects of the future. It was a synthesis of slide rules and spaceships, of relatively low technology and almost impossibly high achievement.

I look at the (film!) photographs of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin standing amid the “magnificent desolation” of Tranquility Base, and I sometimes wonder if these pictures came from time travelers of the future instead of men nearly a half-century in the past. How could they do this without GPS satellites, modern computers or smartphones? How was this possible without any of the modern tools upon which we have become inextricably dependent?

Trace the history of this day further back. Before Apollo 11, there were Apollo flights 7 through 10 — and the launchpad disaster of Apollo 1 that claimed the lives of three astronauts. Each mission was designed to systematically test the spacecraft that Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins would use in their monumental journey. Before that, the Gemini missions negotiated the mechanics of complex orbital maneuvers, and the Mercury missions took the first teetering baby steps to outer space.

One small step... mankind's giant leap
July 20, 1969, 3:17:39 EST: The Apollo 11 lander touched down on the moon carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Circling in moon orbit was Michael Collins, awaiting their return from the surface.

Behind all these missions were not only valiant astronauts but also armies of dedicated and passionate scientists, engineers and mathematicians — men and women who employed not just precise and well-calculated science facts, but precise and calculating science thinking. Their science thinking meticulously designed command modules and lunar landers, computed their trajectories and built thundering rockets to send them on their way.

Behind these pioneers of the Space Age was great public enthusiasm for education in science and technology, in the fields we now call STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Many credit their training and expertise to the postwar GI bill, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the Higher Education Act of 1965 and congressional support of the National Science Foundation.

History is clear. Quality STEM education produces science thinkers. Science thinkers allow us to touch the cosmos.

Those great scientists went to the moon 45 years ago with no wireless Internet or sprawling search engines. They did it with only their brains and computers that would be outpaced today by a pocket calculator. They understood that science is not only about the sophisticated tools you use or the facts you know but also the way you think

It’s how you ask the right questions. It’s how you take apart problems and solve them. It’s how you argue with real, quantitative evidence. It’s how you think critically about the world around you. Ask any scientist, engineer or mathematician to boil down his or her field to its essence (this astrophysicist included), and I guarantee you would get some variation of this description.

We launched men to the moon not because scientists could memorize equations, but because they could make equations flow from their work. Armstrong and Aldrin walked on another world not because engineers knew facts, but because they investigated and methodically analyzed the world around them to come up with facts.

It sounds less like encyclopedias and texts and more like open experimentation and exploration, doesn’t it? Less like “Jeopardy” and more like “Mythbusters.”

We at the Carnegie Science Center strongly believe that this “hands-on, minds-on” approach to learning should be the centerpiece of quality STEM education. Our core mission is to inspire the next generation of STEM practitioners by providing them a vibrant place and a wide variety of programs to explore STEM thinking and exploration. We want to encourage them to experience science as science is done.

Experts in STEM fields took us to the moon and along the way developed marvels like advanced medical imaging, dialysis, microwave ovens, wireless technologies, GPS and the Internet. STEM fields drive economic growth and improve our quality of life. Just as scientists made their indelible mark on history 45 years ago with Apollo 11, they do so today with a dizzying array of new technologies, and they will continue to do so in the future with whatever exotic frontiers we pursue.

In the meantime, we all need to work together to inspire and prepare the next-generation workforce for whatever that next giant leap for mankind will be.

Brendan Mullan was named director of Carnegie Science Center’s Buhl Planetarium and Observatory earlier this month. At Penn State University, where he earned his Ph.D., he designed and conducted outreach programs in astronomy and astrobiology.

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