When the New York Times phoned my father's office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1993, the reporter had hopes of a gotcha moment. The article featured a short biography of my dad but focused on the age-old question, "So you're a rocket scientist, but can you program your VCR?" My father said yes, and his kids could too.
When I saw the article in the Times, I was the mature age of eight and assumed thousands -- maybe millions -- of my peers could also call their fathers rocket scientists. One of eleven NASA centers, Marshall Space Flight Center neighbors the town of Huntsville in Alabama. Most of my childhood friends' families had transferred to Huntsville to engineer the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle or one of NASA's science missions like the Hubble Space Telescope. My own grandfather had moved from the Midwest in the 1960s to work on the Army's missile projects, also developed at the arsenal in Alabama. When I graduated high school, Huntsville had the highest number of Ph.D.s per capita in the entire United States. It seemed like everyone's parents were rocket scientists.
The Space Shuttle fleet retires this year and I have doubts that the next generation of eight-year-olds in Huntsville will also identify with rocket science or human spaceflight. The rocketry business is not booming. American efforts in space will rely upon Russian transport to and from the International Space Station. There is not yet a replacement for the Shuttle, as efforts to develop new vehicles throughout the 1990s and 2000s were overly ambitious, underfunded or full of political risk.