NASA is on a journey to Mars that will send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. This journey is well underway in classrooms, labs, garages and around kitchen tables. It is underway at all of NASA’s Centers throughout our country. It is also underway aboard the International Space Station.

We are currently in the first stage of this journey; a phase we call “earth dependent.” Much of our work is being conducted on and in support of the space station. Scott Kelly’s year-in-space allowed us to test the impacts of things like weightlessness on a very long duration mission. Meanwhile, Commander Kelly, and our past, present and future astronauts aboard the station have tested (and are testing) technologies that drive exploration, along with job creation and innovation here on Earth—we like to say they work off the earth, for the earth.

NASA ASTRONAUTS: Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren on the Internation Space Station ready their taste buds for their first taste of food that's grown, harvested and eaten in space; a critical step on the path to Mars.

The importance of students

Every NASA astronaut conducts about 250 experiments on the station. Students designed a good number of the experiments our astronauts have conducted and will conduct.

“We can add the arts and design to this rubric, as a new wave of research has demonstrated that right and left-brain disciplines reinforce each other.”

The students of today will continue to play an important role throughout the next phases of our journey to Mars: in the “proving ground” phase, in cis-lunar space (on orbit around the moon and further into deep space where our astronauts are days or weeks away from Earth); and the third and final “earth independent” phase, when our astronauts put boots on Mars.

From STEM to STEAMD

This is one of the many reasons that President Obama, NASA and leaders in business, academic and civic life around our country have made it a priority to encourage more young people to pursue studies and careers in disciplines that have traditionally been referred to as STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.

I refer to these essential disciplines as “STEAMD” for two reasons. First, so we can add the arts and design to this rubric, as a new wave of research has demonstrated that right and left-brain disciplines reinforce each other. Second, because, frankly I’m steamed that not enough young American students are entering these professions and that there are unacceptable disparities among women and minority populations.

We need to inspire more young people to train to be the next generation of explorers, engineers, professors, painters, physicians, planetary scientists, poets, physicists, paramedics, patent agents, pathologists, photographers and so forth. If we succeed, the impact will be felt all the way to Mars, where we will become an interplanetary species.

Why Mars? To answer enduring questions: “Are there habitable planets?” and, “Are we alone in the universe?”

So let’s join together in saying “full STEAMD ahead, to Mars and beyond!”