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Making A Difference

3 min read

In honor of this month's National Engineers Week (EWeek, 22 to 28 February), IEEE Spectrum decided to profile working technologists who have fun at work [see "Dream Jobs 2004"]. Some may think it blasphemous to put fun and work in the same sentence, but we believe that the people who are the best at what they do are those who have fun doing it.

Many of these EE dream jobs are held by people with nontraditional academic backgrounds. Gehry Technologies' Dennis Shelden, for example, has degrees in computation, information technology, and architecture. And Sun Microsystems' John Gage credits his attendance at IEEE and other industry conferences with giving him his real education. What was remarkable in all cases was the tenaciousness with which our profilees searched for the work they really wanted to do--they simply didn't take no for an answer, even when no was the only answer they were getting.

Also in honor of EWeek, we conducted a survey with IEEE-USA asking IEEE student and working members around the world how they got interested in engineering. We asked them what they like about their work and whether they intend to stick with it [see "The Attractions of Technology"].

What we learned: people get into this profession because they are passionate about making things, making things better, and making a difference in the world. They also decide early on in life that they want to do this--underscoring the notion that precollege exposure to the world of technology and invention is absolutely critical. For invention-minded kids in middle and high school, their first technology courses play a big role in their decision to follow a technology-related career path.

Also of note in this time of great concern about job security and outsourcing is that the working engineers queried in this survey are deter-mined to stay in engineering or related technology areas for the long haul--48 percent in the same field they are working in now, 11 percent in a related area. We're proud to report on them and their world-changing efforts.

Mars Walk?

The stunning vistas of Mars currently being captured by NASA's robot rover Spirit [see our photo essay Wish You Were Here"] inspire an obvious question: when will humans walk those ruddy alien sands?

U.S. President George W. Bush's election-year announcement last month of his plan for human spaceflight suggests the answer to that question is sometime after 2020. According to the plan, after completing the International Space Station, the space shuttle fleet will be retired--by 2010. Meanwhile, development will have begun on the new Crew Exploration Vehicle, capable of leaving Earth orbit. This spacecraft will be used to return to the Moon as early as 2015 and establish a lunar station as a steppingstone to Mars.

Bush deserves credit for providing some much-needed direction to the U.S. human spaceflight program, which has, literally and figuratively, been going in circles since the Apollo missions. In the intervening 30 years, NASA has tried to be all things to all people, justifying its human spaceflight program in terms of its potential for scientific research, industrial manufacturing, and national defense. By spelling out that exploration is the primary purpose of NASA, and a worthy end in itself, Bush has given the agency an opportunity to regain its focus.

However, previous U.S. presidents have made similar announcements, and political and financial support has inevitably withered on the vine for space initiatives not directly linked to some geopolitical strategy. While Bush did provide a concrete funding formula, the amount of additional money for NASA--US $1 billion over five years--averages out, per year, to less than half the cost of a single shuttle launch. Another $11 billion dollars will come over those same five years from reorganizing NASA and phasing out the shuttle, but it remains to be seen if the administration's astronautical ambitions can be met with bargain-basement budgeting.

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