But it's how they are being taught that might be of even greater importance, according to a Space Review essay, "Student Satellites: Encouraging Trend or Sign of Panic?"
Taylor Dinerman points out that miniaturization technology and a standard satellite platform called the "cubesat" is putting space within reach of many organizations.
It's true. One of those efforts, KySat-1, is very nearly ready to ship as the program awaits news about a potential ride. I believe it will find its place in orbit as well and conduct an unparalleled educational mission designed, in part, to appeal to Kentucky students from Pikeville to Paducah.
On Monday, the Kentucky Space program was in Bowling Green, where a high altitude balloon carrying a magnetometer and an inertial measurement unit, the main component of inertial guidance systems used in air and spacecraft, was launched. Reaching 90,000+ feet before before bursting and lowering its payload under parachute to a rural Kentucky driveway, the successful flight accomplished a number of things, including recording valuable attitude control data at the edge of space. That information will aid in the design of future orbital satellites.
In cooperation with state officials, Balloon-1 also tested an experimental communication package for possible use in the event of a major natural or unnatural disaster in Kentucky.
And it hoisted prototype instruments and sensors that will be used in conjunction with other experiments on future flights to study regional climate change.
It's important work.
Balloon-1, however, did much, much more.
As part of its near space program, Kentucky Space is committed to an aggressive schedule of regular high altitude balloon flights because they provide a relatively inexpensive way to reach an audience that is attracted to flight at a young age. In a playground event hosted by Kentucky Space, many children were in attendance Monday and participated in the mission by fashioning a payload from caramels and ping pong balls that soared along with the science.
Capturing kids' imagination in settings like the one above is a hedge against the concerns expressed by Dinerman. It's a hedge because memories from Monday's experience and future events just may carry these children beyond what he calls the high school "enthusiasm gap" and through a necessary and difficult formal science education as young adults.
In the Space Review essay, he writes that "a world-class education system is hard to build and easy to wreck." Having met my kids' teachers, I know they're working flat-out. I genuinely and deeply admire their commitment to the kids in their care. By doing hands-on projects and doing them as often as possible, Kentucky Space hopes to add real science and real fun to that work.
Why go through this effort? Because in addition to the calculations and conclusions, in addition to the science done and the science advanced, the how of science should also pass along what doing space feels like.
Readers interested in pictures from the flight are invited to look at the Flickr badge in the sidebar on the KySpace blog. Follow along as Kentucky does space.