Exactly 50 years ago today, a Saturn V rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the Moon and inspire a generation of young people to become scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
The Apollo program’s effect of inspiring America’s children to pursue careers in STEM fields is one of the most powerful lasting legacies of the Moon race. Unfortunately, this effect seems to be coming to an end.
On the eve of the Apollo 11 anniversary, LEGO asked The Harris Poll to survey a total of 3,000 children in the United States, China, and the United Kingdom about their attitudes toward and knowledge of space. The results reveal that, at least for Western countries, kids today are more interested in YouTube than spaceflight.
Asked what they would like to be when they grow up, about 3 in 10 American and British children replied that they wanted to be YouTubers or Vloggers—careers making videos on the Internet for fame and fortune. Lesser preferences included becoming a teacher, professional athlete, or musician. Becoming an astronaut ranked last, at 11%.
Only in China did children have a clear preference for being an astronaut—or rather, a taikonaut—over other potential professions. Children in China were also much more interested in going into space and had higher expectations for human settlement of space in the decades to come.
It is not clear why kids in the Western world are less interested in space or space professions than those in China. Perhaps it is because America has been there and done that, in terms of lunar exploration, with the Apollo program. Perhaps it is that America’s kids today grew up with continuous national human representation in space, aboard the International Space Station, and do not find an orbiting outpost in low-Earth orbit stimulating. Or perhaps the education system in China places a higher emphasis on the value of science and space exploration.
In any case, LEGO is trying to do its part. The company has released several large sets devoted to recognizing the Apollo program and the value of STEM education. Additionally, a team of 10 designers and LEGO “Master Builders” spent nearly 300 hours designing and building a life-size LEGO model of Aldrin in his iconic pose on the lunar surface.
Ultimately, the real answer for inspiring American youth and nurturing an interest in space may require NASA astronauts to actually return to deep space again for the first time in 50 years. That may—or may not—happen any time soon.