This piece was originally published in City Journal.
Last year’s Artemis 1 mission was a big success for NASA and for the United States, moving us closer to returning to the moon after more than half a century. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, meantime, recently conducted the first flight test of its massive Starship launch vehicle, which it hopes one day will carry humans to Mars. But another crucial race is taking place back on Earth: developing the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to train the next generation of scientists, explorers, and innovators.
A good place to start is with two educational initiatives, Astra Nova and Synthesis. Both were derived from the Ad Astra experimental school, founded by Musk and primarily attended by children of SpaceX employees. Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) ditched both grade levels and traditional topics to focus more on science and technology, critical thinking skills, problem solving, and ethics—all with the aim of inspiring an eagerness to learn. According to its founders, Musk’s only instruction to them was to “make it great.”
Housed within SpaceX facilities, Ad Astra closed in 2020 in the early stages of the pandemic as education, and the world at large, shifted to remote learning and working. The concept lives on, however, in its two successors (neither of which has any affiliation with Musk), beginning with Astra Nova, a full-time school. Unlike Ad Astra, Astra Nova is entirely online and has approximately 50 full-time and 125 part-time students. The lack of rigid, traditional courses and structure allows the school to be agile and iterative, helping students explore subjects from a broad list of STEM topics critical to future U.S. leadership in science and technology.