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NASA turns to sci-fi to hook STEM students

To inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts, NASA is looking to literature.

From left, editor Robert Gleason, author William Forstchen and NASA engineer John Panek at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The three worked together on ‘Pillar to the Sky,’ a sci-fi novel about a space elevator — an actual concept in development at NASA. (The Daily Record/Lizzy McLellan)

With a new series known as “NASA-inspired Works of Fiction,” the agency intends to attract students to careers in science and technology. The series was born from a partnership between NASA and Tor, a publisher known for science fiction and fantasy titles.

“The majority of scientists, especially, will tell you that one of their main inspirations to be a scientist was science fiction,” said Peggy Maher, who initiated the publishing partnership in 2007.

NASA held a kickoff event Wednesday at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to celebrate the first book in the series, “Pillar to the Sky” by William Forstchen. The author spoke to a group of middle school students about the topic of the novel and how it can relate to real science.

“Pillar in the Sky” is a fictional story about a scientist who believes in the possibility of a space elevator — a vessel that connects Earth to space by way of a strong cable and car, allowing for travel into space more quickly and at a lower cost.

“When I was a kid, going to the moon was science fiction,” Forstchen told the students. The space elevator idea, he said, was real. “I’m just a novelist and historian, [but] there are people out there working on this concept.”

Forstchen knows that because he worked with NASA engineer John Panek to ensure the scientific accuracy of the story. Each of the Tor authors for the NASA series will have a subject matter expert to consult in creating the novels.

“You want to push the envelope to something that’s doable,” said Panek. “This book is kind of like a road map … for younger kids to get involved and build stuff.”

NASA has always emphasized the importance of education, said Maher; part of the agency’s charter is to share with Americans the knowledge it creates. But student interest in STEM careers could use a boost.

“NASA doesn’t have the same cachet with young people as it did with the Apollo generation,” she said, “but it is still considered really cool and exciting.”

According to statistics from the National Math and Science Initiative, less than 20 percent of students choose to pursue a path in STEM, and the U.S. may be as many as 3 million workers short in high-skill positions by 2018. The statistics also say that in 2009, U.S. scientists fielded only 29 percent of research papers in the most influential journals, compared with 40 percent in 1981.

Robert Gleason, executive editor for Tor, said that he has noticed a similar decline in science fiction writing.

“You don’t get as many good, hard science fiction writers as you used to,” he said. “You get far more fantasy.”

But among the science types, the interest is alive and well. Both the sci-fi authors and NASA scientists were star-struck upon meeting each other for the first time, said Maher. And on Wednesday, engineer Panek and editor Gleason exchanged compliments following Forstchen’s presentation.

“It makes you really believe that it’s possible,” Gleason said of science fiction novels. “It really does make you realize that scientists and astronauts are heroes.”

“You remind us why we do this,” Panek responded. “It’s super inspiring. Part of what I do is try to bring it into reality.”