As an aspiring scientist in Baltimore in the 1970s, Robert Curbeam would stand at the end of his street and marvel at NASA's Skylab space station when he could see it floating in the sky. Decades later, as an astronaut, he would see space firsthand and put his STEM skills to use installing and repairing equipment on the International Space Station during several missions. Curbeam, 51, participated in three NASA spaceflights and was the first astronaut to complete four spacewalks during a single mission. He retired from the space agency in 2007 and now serves as vice president for mission assurance for Massachusetts-based aerospace and defense company Raytheon. Curbeam recently spoke with U.S. News about what sparked his early interest in science and engineering and how to inspire the next generation of STEM leaders. Excerpts:
What inspired you to study engineering?
When I was growing up, my mom was a chemistry teacher and I really, really took to it. When I started looking at colleges, I found out that I really had a keener interest in engineering. Also, when I was in middle school, I had a very good friend…[and] he and I used to spend a lot of time together trying to design a better car or a better plane, things like that. To us it just seemed like it made sense that there were so many things that didn't change about the car for so long that we could do it better at age 12 or 13.
What kept you interested?
It was creativity mixed with mathematics. When you do design work, it's never straightforward. It almost approaches being art-like, an artistic kind of thing, where creativity and the way you think about the problem sometimes will yield a different design than someone would originally think.
[Check out the U.S. News best engineering schools.]
How did you use that engineering training in your work at NASA?
There were two ways, actually. The first is the actual operation of a spacecraft. That's not to say that without a technical degree you couldn't do that. It just makes it easier to operate the spacecraft and understand the interaction between all of the systems. I also used my engineering degree after the [2003 space shuttle] Columbia accident because I was on the safety and mission assurance team that was evaluating all of the hazard analyses…for the space shuttle system. At that point you really get to the nitty-gritty of how the systems work, where the hazards are, what kinds of interfaces the different systems have and their interactions, and how maybe a failure in one can cause a cascading failure in others.
What do you see ahead in terms of the future of space travel and research?
The thing that excites me is we're finally to that stage where you can have an interaction of both human systems and purely machine systems. We can take the best of the remotely piloted or driven vehicles, which is their persistence, their ability to operate in very harsh environments, along with your human-driven or -piloted vehicles, vehicles that we would actually put people in, and their inherent flexibility and responsiveness. At the end of the day, we're going to need a lot of very, very smart and informed and knowledgeable people in the next generation to help us continue to push that forward. Although we sit here and we're very, very worried about the short term—how do we get people that are qualified to do the jobs we have now?—we also have to think a generation away: How are we going to make sure that we have the people to do that work in 2030, 2040, 2050?
How do we attract that next generation of astronauts and engineers to the STEM disciplines?
I think the most important thing is to make it relevant. Learning about how, for instance, combustion worked was very interesting to me because I saw it every day. I understood that that was the key to the automobile, key to how airplanes flew. By the same token, if you want to get kids interested and keep them interested in the STEM fields, you have to make it relevant. I really don't care what the answer to 3x+2y=1 is, but if you tell me that that equation will help me solve the problem of how much grain I need to buy for how many horses to keep them alive for the next winter, then it becomes relevant.
[See what STEM skills matter for businesses that will boom in 2020.]
What can parents do to help encourage children to study STEM?
I just think it's through exposure. I count my lucky stars that I had a chemistry teacher as a mom. I had a very keen understanding of science at a very young age. I think parents need to expose their children to more of this, even if it's just going to the science museum once a year and going, "Hey, isn't this cool?"
Do you have any thoughts on how to boost STEM diversity and participation among underrepresented populations like women and minorities?
I've participated in Raytheon's Stand & Deliver program a little bit, where we go to areas where we have historically underrepresented ethnic groups…and talk to them and mentor them. Once again, it's more about exposure. I think that a lot of those ethnic groups don't get to see people working in STEM fields. It's a lot easier to picture yourself doing something that you've seen someone else do. So I think we have a responsibility—and I mean we as Raytheon and we as STEM-career people—to go out there to those historically underrepresented groups and show them what we do, show them the path to get there. Probably middle school is when people are starting to really firm up those choices as far as liking or not liking science and math and things like that. And I think it's good that we actually attack the problem at that age through [Raytheon's] MathMovesU. We target middle schoolers. That's when we know we're going to make or break it.
Any other advice for future STEM students?
STEM is important, it is absolutely critical that we do it well. As we would say in mathematics, it is a necessary but not sufficient skill to have. I try to stress it all the time that we need to do it better, we need to be better at emphasizing the STEM disciplines throughout, but not at the expense of some of the other things that we teach. Although I don't always use calculus every day, I do use English every day. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can't communicate that knowledge, it often goes unused. We still have to be able to make room for English, foreign language, and the other humanities and social sciences.