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Updating a guide used by Boy Scouts seeking a Space Exploration merit badge provided an opportunity for some space advocates.

Boy Scout space exploration


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Since the Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to the head office of the Boy Scouts of America, one of the projects that NSS of North Texas gets to work on periodically is an update to Space Exploration merit badge pamphlet. With the 2004 edition (our last big contribution) well in need of an update, the chapter worked in 2010 to provide one, and in April of 2014 the most recent update was published, bigger and better than ever.

The shuttle would have to be retired to the historical missions section, and vast swathes of text excised (from 5½ pages to 1), which created some friction with older members who had known and worked on the Shuttle program.

Past NSS of North Texas chapter president Ken Murphy has long been interested in the Space Exploration merit badge as a channel to highlight space advocacy objectives to a younger audience, and even organized a merit badge program at the Frontiers of Flight Museum for a score of scouts. When the opportunity arose in 2010 to provide another comprehensive update to the requirements, Ken quickly organized a team that included NSS Houston and NSS Austin and got to work.

The most notable content change derives from the retirement of the Space Shuttle program. We were writing for the future, and had an opportunity to highlight many new transportation options. The shuttle would have to be retired to the historical missions section, and vast swathes of text excised (from 5½ pages to 1), which created some friction with older members who had known and worked on the Shuttle program. Interestingly, because of the time frame in which we were working, the SLS doesn’t make an appearance anywhere in the book. Prescient?

There were also changes to some requirements and their descriptions. The full current list of requirements can be found on the Boy Scouts website.

For requirement 2, Scouts are called upon to create an “astronaut trading card”. In the 2004 edition, a number of brief bios are given in two sections: Dreamers and Doers. For the latest edition we re-worked it into Visionaries, Makers (in tribute to the Maker community), Doers, and Entrepreneurs. A couple of names were dropped, such as H.G. Wells, Gene Roddenberry, and Buzz Aldrin (his picture is on the trading card illustration in the pamphlet, so he’s still represented), and some new names added, like Robert Heinlein (who published many stories in the Boy Scout magazine Boy’s Life), Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill of L-5 fame, Sergei Korolev, Steve Squyres, John Young (to bridge the Apollo/Shuttle eras), Robert Bigelow, Peter Diamandis, and Elon Musk.

A lot of debate went into determining the list. Some on the team wanted more shuttle-era representation in the Doers section, but no one could agree on whom to cut to make room. The first American in space? The first American in orbit? The first American on the Moon? So we cut the second man on the Moon, and added the first Space Shuttle pilot. No one could agree on a shuttle astronaut: Eileen Collins? Michael Lopez-Alegria? Ron McNair? Jeff Hoffman? No consensus could be found, so we punted on including a more current Space Shuttle astronaut.

Requirement 3 involves the building and launching of model rockets. NSS of North Texas usually passes on this requirement, leaving it to the experts at the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) to take ownership, just as we do locally with the Dallas Area Rocket Society (DARS) on rocketry-related stuff.

Requirement 4, which covers some basic physics of spaceflight, saw only modest changes, mainly a paragraph on the VASIMR engine. A short section on orbital elements and TLEs of satellites was not adopted, unfortunately.

Requirement 5, which requires a discussion of a past space mission, includes a section summarizing past robotic missions in the Solar System, which required extensive updating from the last update in the 2003 timeframe. Working in 2010–11, we recognized we’d have to be conservatively forward-looking and include missions out to the 2015 timeframe. Nevertheless, here in 2014 the info is already current. Perhaps we should have been even more forward-looking, to 2018–2020, but we did have deadlines to meet, and the uncertainty factor starts going asymptotic the farther out you get. The Moon got almost a full additional page, while for Mars a full-page picture of one of the Mars Exploration Rovers was replaced with up-to-date text. Asteroids also got a full new page. I had attempted to “web-ify” the content a bit by including the web addresses for the homepages of each of the missions, but that was dropped.

Previously, requirement 6 called for a description of the Space Shuttle or the ISS. In the new edition, it’s the ISS or “Shuttle or any other crewed orbital vehicle, whether government-owned (U.S. or foreign) or commercial.” There was a nice comparison table of launch vehicles and in-development crew vehicles submitted that would have made a nice two-page spread and even included web links to the actual launcher guides for the rockets, but that didn’t make the cut. This was where much of the Space Shuttle material was excised, but the ISS got a couple of extra pages, and a description of “The New Era of Space Transportation” was added to reflect the changes that were and would be undergone in the industry.

If NSS members, or the space community at large, made an effort, how many Scouts could we help get the Space Exploration merit badge? One thousand? Ten thousand? One hundred thousand?

Requirement 7 called for the design of a Moon or Mars base. We suggested that be expanded to include asteroids and the moons of Jupiter, but the choice ends up being Solar System-wide. Most stunning is the addition of a full page of content on “Free Space Facilities,” discussing the Earth-Moon L-1 point (a topic unknown to most, and the addition of which I am most proud), as well as habitats at Earth-Moon L-5. There’s also half a page on “Asteroid Facilities,” while both the Moon and Mars sections got an update to include discussions of commercial as well as scientific interests. There’s also an added section on “The Future of Space Exploration” that highlights many of the topical discussions, and includes several paragraphs on space development that touch on asteroid and Moon mining, solar-power satellites, infrastructure development, and propellant depots.

Requirement 8, to discuss space careers, was left alone given the high degree of uncertainty in space-related employment markets. While in the past a government-funded job was the most likely career path, either directly through employment at NASA, or indirectly through subcontractors and universities receiving NASA funding, increasing entrepreneurial efforts will require some pathfinding of new career paths, many of which can’t be foreseen. By the next update, though, things should be a bit clearer.

Overall the pamphlet has grown from 87 pages to 96, an almost 10% increase thanks to the efforts of NSS of North Texas (and others) to keep the pamphlet relevant and accurate. Many space advocacy priorities have been given a new outlet, with frank discussions of things like solar power satellites for energy, space settlement, and asteroid mining for resources. A whole new generation will be exposed to these ideas. The infrastructure is there: an organized Scouting program, local museums and universities with relevant resources, other space-related community organizations. If NSS members, or the space community at large, made an effort, how many Scouts could we help get the Space Exploration merit badge? One thousand? Ten thousand? One hundred thousand?

Some may deride the work of space activists as ineffective, and I wouldn’t particularly disagree in regards to political efforts, but this project illustrates how those critics are wrong. This updated pamphlet will be seen by countless young Scouts (and others who read it) over the next decade, and it will shape their thinking on the topic. It is a solid reference book on the topic of space exploration (and development), and an effort of which NSS of North Texas is rightly proud.


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ISPCS 2014