NASA recently fired a spacecraft at an asteroid. It was a daring strike on a target around 11m km from Earth and the agency’s first attempt at redirecting an asteroid.
A target asteroid was identified for the collision and called Dimorphos, a name derived from Greek meaning “having two forms”. The mission was known as DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) and is part of NASA’s larger planetary defence work.
Last month, a jubilant NASA released impressive live footage of the spacecraft clearly crashing into the asteroid’s surface and the mission was declared a success.
“NASA adequately funds its projects and achieves results.”
Presently, there are no known asteroids threatening Earth. However, NASA is proactive. Scientists continue to prepare by regularly scouring the skies for any new asteroids and identifying dangers early on.
So what can a project, dreamed up and executed by the famous American space agency, teach us about the education system in the United Kingdom?
- Mission. Crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid was just a small part of a much bigger mission. There can’t be many more important tasks than keeping our planet, the only known habitable place in the universe, and its inhabitants safe. Equally, there can’t be many more important tasks for human society than educating their young people.
- Stability. There has been three permanent administrators of NASA since 2010. During the same period, there have been nine different Secretaries of State for Education in England. There is constant change. Could we disconnect education from politics?
- Strategy. NASA knows the threats to the Earth are multi-faceted and need to be considered carefully. Threats are identified well in advance and solutions are developed. It all feeds into a long-term planetary defence strategy. Would it be possible to bring similar longer-term strategic thinking into education?
- Experience. The DART mission has drawn experts from around the world to contribute their expertise, collaborating and planning for future defence efforts to protect the planet. Those responsible for steering education do not always have strong experience in the educational field. Is it now time to put the most experienced leaders into the most critical positions?
- Funding. NASA adequately funds its projects and achieves results. Could schools work more closely with local communities, find out what they need and develop additional revenue streams?
- Timing. A reminder of the danger that asteroids could pose to the Earth occurred in Russia, February 2013. A relatively small meteor exploded and created a shockwave that struck six different cities. In education, Covid was a wakeup call. Could we do more to plan for potentially damaging scenarios in advance?
In the UAE they have developed a 50-year strategy called “Centennial 2071”. A key pillar of their long-term vision is education. They highlight the importance of the provision of an excellent quality of education for their young people. Their aims focus particularly on developing science and technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Just as the country successfully developed a long-term vision to move their economy from oil to tourism, now they are working on the next phase of development.
Rishi Sunak’s recent appointment as UK Prime Minister has led to another cabinet reshuffle. Although he has kept some cabinet ministers in the same key positions for stability, such as the Chancellor, the education secretary has changed once again. Gillian Keegan MP becomes the fifth minister to serve as Secretary of State for Education in four months.
It is as yet unclear whether there will be the time or the will for Sunak’s vision for a “British Baccalaureate” to come to pass.
The modern world is changing at such a rate. Fluctuating education policy, wholesale changes to key personnel, short-term fixes and a lack of clear direction has continued to add confusion, as well as uncertainty to the education system. Most experienced headteachers have seen initiatives come and go. While there is probably some merit in some of the new ideas, without a long-term strategy it is difficult to see their value and for education professionals to fully buy into.
“Short termism has repeatedly been shown not to work for anyone.”
Education needs to learn vital lessons from the space sector. The impact of education on young people can literally make or break a life. Short termism has repeatedly been shown not to work for anyone. Education deserves a long-term vision to work with – one that sets out exactly what needs to be achieved over the next decades. A carefully considered strategy, set out by experts in the field, that sets out clear goals and the steps that will need to be taken to achieve them.
Can we afford to continue placing our trust in short-term plans and inexperienced educationalists to run such an important sector? I can’t imagine NASA relying on inexperienced leaders and underfunding their critical missions – handing over their vital planetary defence operations to space novices.