Closing the Inspiration Gap in Space Exploration

A behind-the-scenes look at LEGO Education space-themed sets development.

GUEST COLUMN | by Barry Bohnsack

When children today tell me they want to be an astronaut, I always respond with: “Well, I’m helping to build the spacecraft that you’re going to be flying one day.”

When I was very young, I planned on being a banker like my dad.

I never thought about a career in STEM until I joined a FIRST® Robotics Competition team in the 11th grade.

I travelled to the FIRST Championship event in Atlanta that year.

This sparked an interest that I didn’t know I had.

Inspired for Life

I had the opportunity to meet people who were huge inspirations in my life – including Dave Lavery, Program Executive for Solar System Exploration at NASA and FIRST® mentor, who worked on the Mars rovers.

I lived near the Kennedy Space Center, the realization hit me this was a career path I hadn’t considered.

In college, I continued volunteering with FIRST as a mentor on a Lockheed Martin sponsored team called “Exploding Bacon.”

Launching A Career

It was the Lockheed Martin mentors on that team that helped me land an internship with Lockheed Martin Rotary and Mission Systems in Orlando.

Later, I accepted a full-time position, obtained an MBA, and transferred to Lockheed Martin Space at the Kennedy Space Center.

And that is where my career in space began.

Soon enough I was putting my finance skills to work at the center and realized that those skills could be leveraged in a way I had never thought of on NASA’s space program.

I was hooked.

I’ve worked at Lockheed Martin as a Program Planner for nine years now.

I focus on supporting the Orion management team in creating schedules, manpower plans, and budget estimates that allow us to assemble the spacecraft.

Recently, Something Interesting Happened

I was recently invited by LEGO Education and FIRST to be a part of a Challenge Advisory Team—a group of experts that identify real-world challenges that can be leveraged as inspiration for FIRST LEGO League Jr. and FIRST LEGO League team challenges for the upcoming season.

And I was invited to help create new LEGO Education sets that support the challenges.

The theme this year was space.

And I was among a handful of experts invited including university professors, engineers, astronomers—and even an astronaut.

Deeper (Space) Learning

My role on the team was to talk about the Orion Spacecraft and the future of human deep space exploration.

I pitched real challenges that NASA is experiencing – such as radiation exposure for astronauts who leave Earth’s magnetic field, the duration of time a Mars mission will take and building spacecraft that can withstand that duration.

I brought pictures and stories about Orion Spacecraft assembly and testing to convey real experiences in the field. Other topics from experts included astronomy, geology of planets, and In-Situ Resource Utilization.

More topics included research being conducted on the International Space Station, and theories of what the future of human space travel will be like fifty to a hundred years from now.

We even pitched an idea that all four FIRST programs should share a space theme to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, at that time the FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition themes had not been selected.

The room was filled with healthy debates among incredibly talented people who all agree that building the future workforce is crucial in allowing us to continue to be innovative in space exploration.

I found this so interesting.

Because—as a child, you never think about how products that you play with and use every day make it into your hands, many of those products being NASA spinoff technologies.

It was fascinating to see how LEGO Education and FIRST have facilitated an expert panel to ensure authentic learning experiences from the playful learning tools they are creating.

From there, LEGO Education and FIRST compiled all of the findings to ultimately develop the LEGO Education MISSION MOON℠ and INTO ORBIT℠ sets and challenge direction for the upcoming season of FIRST LEGO League Jr. and FIRST LEGO League.

Our moment is coming soon

Human space exploration is an incredible driver for sparking an interest in STEM among children – seeing one launch is really all it takes to get students engaged and excited, a life changing memory.

For my parents’ generation, it was the Apollo launches.

For me it was witnessing a Space Shuttle launch.

Humans have not returned to the moon since 1972, nor launched from American soil since 2011.

For kids today who missed the opportunity to watch people escape the gravitational pull of Earth, there has been an inspiration gap.

And until humans return to deep-space, the best way to fill that gap is to create experiences and products like what LEGO Education and FIRST have done.

Orion 2015 Progress Toward Exploration Mission-1.This video shows many hardware milestones reached in 2015 to send NASA’s Orion spacecraft to deep space on Exploration Mission-1, a flight that will take the uncrewed spacecraft thousands of miles beyond the moon in the first integrated mission with NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. HD source link: CREDIT: NASA

Our generation’s “One giant leap” Apollo moment is coming soon.

Having achieved my own dream, it’s important to me to lead others in achieving their dreams of becoming part of the high-tech workforce.

I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a team getting us closer to bringing that inspiration back as we prepare for Orion Exploration Mission 1 as early as December 2019 which will launch on the most powerful rocket ever built, the SLS.

This will be followed by a crewed mission around the moon on Exploration Mission 2 as early as 2021.

To learn about important key dates with the Orion Spacecraft, please visit here and to learn about how to becoming part of a FIRST team, please visit here.

Barry Bohnsack is Program Planner for the Orion Spacecraft at Lockheed Martin Space. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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