You Don’t Know What You’ve got ‘Til It’s Gone

Does anyone think of Spain or RCA as a world leader? Both are settled comfortably into second or third tier status these days, but that was not always the case. Spain made a bold move to fund Columbus and supplanted Portugal as the leader in world exploration and exploitation. RCA , the world’s leader in radio broadcasting, saw the potential in the technologies of Farnsworth Radio and Television, licensed them and was able to set the standards for American TV for the next fifty years. Both lost their leadership roll to short-term financial considerations and a lack of unifying vision.

The United States has been the world leader in space exploration since we took over from the USSR with Project Apollo. Since 1961 we have been able to launch people into space and today, 50 years later, that comes to end with the final shuttle launch. Budget cuts and a lack of vision now make us dependent on Russian launch vehicles to reach the International Space Station (ISS). Until we will our wallets to make one small step for funding a next generation space vehicle it will stay that way. But is there vision or the will to spend some of our money? I ask my students what they want to be when they grow up and no one wants to be an astronaut – Too dangerous! What’s the point? It’s not looking good for Team America.

In a two-nation race, we won because of a focused effort on a clear goal and the benefits were obvious and enormous. Everything from miniaturized electronics to pantyhose spun off from the early space program giving us iPhone/Pods/Pads and new aerobic excercises. We won the race and then we got bored. Other nations have kept up their research. China has launched its first astronauts. India, Japan, the European Union and Iran are all working diligently to do the same. The expertise of working through the myriad of problems of creating the complex machinery that can hurtle humans into space and return them alive can only be developed by doing it. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Other nations are gaining the skills that we will soon lose.

The shuttle Atlantis that was launched today began its life in 1980, the same year I got married. In thirty-one years I have gone to college, raised two kids, one of whom is about to be married to start her own family, and changed jobs and houses a few times. In that same period NASA has launched a shuttle 135 times and had its replacement programs scrapped almost as often. Only Charlie Sheen would call that winning.

Our greatest growth as a nation, our greatest expansion of the middle class, our greatest increase in college graduates came at a time when we felt challenged as a nation. Eisenhower, then Kennedy and Johnson saw the best way to meet that challenge was to fund research and engineering so the nation would have the skills to lead in an increasingly technological world and we all benefitted. The National Defense Act of 1958 funded education at all levels to assure that we kept pace with the Soviets, to close an education gap. This was the stimulus that landed us on the moon. The next step, geosynchronous space stations and lunar outposts, was killed by Nixon in a budget constraint move.

The shuttle, the transport system designed to assist in these beginning steps into our solar system, was allowed to live, but with its original mission excised. With some creativity and muscle, the shuttle became a space tug that hauled into orbit the Hubble telescope (and updated it!), much of the International Space Station, and released, retrieved and repaired a hundred satellites. The shuttle has brought us new insulators, biosensors, tracking systems, and two tragic losses, Challenger and Columbia. All this experience is worth thousands of white papers. Right thought is no substitute for right action or, as Yoda said, “Try not, do!”

Right now we have a challenge before us. We are rapidly losing our middle class and our technological lead. We are becoming politically polarized. We need to unite behind leadership that will fund research and education because those are the elements that rocketed the U.S ahead of the world. We are about to become that fat rich kid nation that the other nations play with only because we have cool toys our parents bought, but soon they will break and we will have no idea how to fix them.

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One Response to “You Don’t Know What You’ve got ‘Til It’s Gone”

  1. m2smith Says:

    The question of priorities seems to always come up when we discuss space flight. Shouldn’t we spend our money on cancer/ highways/housing??? Yes, we should, but to put things in perspective the cost of the war in Iraq to date is about the same as a mission to Mars – $500 billion. I would rather be on sands of Gale Crater than Al-Ḥajarah. What is it all this spending good for? I have the same answer as Ben Franklin when he witnessed one of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloons – “What good is a new born baby?”

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