- NASA Watch
- August 6, 2023
Space Station Flyovers In Flyover Country Are Not All That They Could Be
Keith’s note: Several weeks ago I posted “Doing Something Again For The First Time” which focused on the sector of the U.S. population that was not alive when humans landed on the moon. I have had 3 publication requests to reuse my graphic. Tonight I came across another graphic on Facebook. You can see it here at visualcapitalist.com.
In 2016 people talked about “flyover country” without giving it too much thought as to what it meant other than that’s where Trump voters and/or Hillary haters lived. You’ve all heard me rant about how I think NASA needs to readjust its education and public outreach efforts so as to reach the large sectors of America that do not usually get NASA’s attention. In my mind there is some overlap between the flyover country meme and what I consider to be a chronically underserved portion of America’s population when it comes to NASA outreach.
I used to be on the board of Directors of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. We were always trying to understand where the underserved education markets were. I used to amuse myself by using Google Earth and its street view function to roam the U.S. at random looking for towns in flyover country that might have foreclosed buildings that could become Challenger Centers. I always found them – and they were always near big Walmart box stores.
Households revolve around income – where it comes from – and where it ends up being spent. It goes without saying that more income usually means more opportunities for people. And certain skilled portions of the labor market pay better than others. Look at this map (click to enlarge). In many ways there are “Two Americas” but not the ones you normally think about. In one America (“non-Walmart America”) education, medical, and high-end manufacturing jobs lead the local economy. With that is a prerequisite focus on technical and scientific skills. In the the other “Walmart” America the focus is more on retail and service economy. Yet I would submit that while both Walmart and non-Walmart Americas have different business and educational mixes, their residents both share an equal capacity and desire to learn – and explore. And NASA is historically a prime magnet for such ambitions.
I’m not here to dump on Walmart. I shop there. But here in non-Walmart America when you ask someone to name the largest building in their city or town people talk about lots of universities, arenas, skyscrapers, factories, etc. Often in Walmart America the largest building is a Walmart – and you have to drive for many miles to reach it. But NASA focuses on communities where the big buildings are schools.
I am going to generalize and will get in trouble for doing so. In my 30 years of working for and/or watching NASA I feel that NASA aims virtually all of itself in terms of education and public outreach as if it is only talking to the the non-Walmart parts of the country – where people have a high technical expertise, easy Internet access, vote in urban trends, and have the income to pursue careers in exciting areas such as space exploration. It is always assumed that schools have the money to implement the stuff NASA posts on its websites.
That is not what you’d normally associate with flyover country. When Internet access is non-existent, school budgets are limited, and local job prospects lead young people away from (instead of toward) the chance to explore space, all of the fancy Internet stuff NASA blasts out online never makes contact. NASA has a website where you can find your town and get alerts by email when the space station is going to fly overhead. I go out every chance I get to watch it fly over my house. But what happens when your internet access requires a long bus ride – back and forth – every day – just to get those daily emails? The immediacy that non-Walmart America has to NASA falls flat in Walmart America. A space station flyover in flyover country is not all that it could be.
Oddly Johnson, Marshall, Kennedy, Langley, Wallops, Michoud, Stennis, and White Sands are all in Walmart America. Yet the interest within these field centers in engaging with surrounding Walmart America on themes and issues relevant to this sector of the population seems to fade after you drive out the center gates through a few county lines or zip codes.
The next time NASA crows in their #JourneyToMars tweets and SLS propaganda pieces about all the jobs that it has created in Texas, Alabama, Ohio, Florida etc. just remember that Walmart consistently does an even better job at employing more people than NASA does. Fact.
I’m not proposing any solutions. Let’s see what the new guy does. But maybe NASA should partner with Walmart on the whole spinoff thing and put up a booth or kiosk in every store. They have 4,600 stores in the U.S. and 140,000,000 customers walk in their doors every week.