Miles O’Brien, a third-generation, instrument-rated general aviation pilot and award-winning PBS correspondent specializing in science, technology, aerospace and environmental reporting, this week urged Embry-Riddle student-engineers to communicate their work and why it’s important to society.
“Engineers as problem-solvers need to share that enthusiasm with a wider audience,” said O’Brien during a Feb. 20 Embry-Riddle SpeakER Series event focused on the evolution of aviation reporting, organized to celebrate National Engineers Week.
“Rockets don’t just spring up by themselves,” O’Brien told event moderator Marc Bernier. Major engineering achievements require strong support from policymakers, funders and the general public. Whether scientists and engineers simply talk about their work across the kitchen table with neighbors or on Twitter, or as part of more formal efforts on Capitol Hill, O’Brien said, it’s important for engineers to “communicate the passion they have for what they do.”
In particular, he asked students to help convey the value of the U.S. space program for inspiring future innovators and advancing human knowledge. Without increased federal support for NASA, “Private enterprise is going to beat NASA to Mars,” O’Brien contended, pointing to the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket by SpaceX.
O’Brien’s appearance at Embry-Riddle – jointly sponsored by the university’s Daytona Beach, Fla., College of Engineering, the Honors Program and the SpeakER Series – was co-hosted by Maj Mirmirani, dean of the College of Engineering and interim senior vice president for academic affairs and research, with Geoffrey Kain, professor of humanities and communication and director of the Honors Program.
“Engineers in this country and around the world are busy finding solutions to some of the most challenging problems we face and creating technologies that make life better for all of us,” Mirmirani said. “From the conquest of space to medical devices … to finding breakthrough technologies or harvesting clean water and clean energy in abundance, engineers have used their imagination and skills to innovate, change our world, improve the quality of life and shape the future.”
“Fake news” is nothing new, O’Brien noted as he shared a surprising, sometimes comical report on the evolution of aviation and aerospace news reporting. He called on students to “take an extra minute to read and think before you retweet something.”
Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first, brief demonstration of powered flight, in 1903 – the “story of the century,” according to O’Brien – was inaccurately reported by only two newspapers. When Orville broke his femur and another man died in a subsequent flight attempt, however, that news made the front page of the New York Times.
“Smoldering holes are news,” O’Brien said, meaning that aviation accidents will always generate more headlines than aviation advancements.
Turning points in aviation and aerospace reporting included NASA’s livestreaming of its Sojourner rover on Mars in 1997 and Veronica McGregor’s live-tweeting of the Phoenix Mars lander from the perspective of the machine, among others, O’Brien said. While editorial gate-keepers used to filter information, now the news can easily be delivered straight to the public via the Internet. Those on the receiving end need to think critically about what’s being presented to them, he added.
He shared the words of James Madison, the fourth U.S. president, who said: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
A 35-year veteran of journalism, O’Brien’s career highlights include being the first reporter to score a seat from NASA to fly on the space shuttle to the International Space Station. The plan was shelved after the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 – an experience he described as intensely emotional.
O’Brien worked for nearly 17 years for CNN and anchored the American Morning program. A highlight of his career was co-anchoring John Glenn’s space shuttle mission with legendary TV news anchor Walter Cronkite. O’Brien’s many honors have included several Emmys, a George Foster Peabody Award and an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award.
He’s now involved with PBS productions such as NewsHour, NOVA and FRONTLINE and works with the National Science Foundation on its Science Nation series.
“This was such an inspiring day,” O’Brien said as the Feb. 20 event came to a close. “It’s always great to be around young people.”
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