I’ve observed over the years that NASA has contributed to our society and economy in numerous ways. It’s not just Tang. Here’s a site that lists some of the Space Race Spinoffs. I saw the phenomenon first hand. As a contractor I worked on a NASA IBM 360 that was enhanced with a floating-point accelerator, necessary for calculating real-time vectors. It was so much faster than the standard instruction set that some of my co-workers bizarrely used it to perform more customary functions, such as integer arithmetic and even counting. In subsequent years, the same concept, the math coprocessor, was incorporated into Intel processors. It was helpful to my own later work as a statistician. Inverting matrices is a bear. I had the hottest PC in the company with the superior OS/2 operating system. I have read, although I can’t seem to find it online, that the original microprocessor was just used for running refrigerators until NASA called down the space race lightning. Hey, could you guys do that for us? Maybe help us with onboard computer-controlled landing systems?
Would we have come up with the same advances and solutions at the same rate without NASA leading the way? It’s hard to say, but I personally don’t think so. I actually think that most of the action was taking place under the covers. There were ten thousand things that no one was thinking of until Jack Kennedy told them to get started. If you ever read any of James Burke’s pieces on connections you know that the intellectual ferment is self-catalyzing, a positive feedback process that shows no signs of tailing off any time soon. A sort of Moore’s Law of Knowledge.
In this regard, I also recommend A History of Warfare, by the peerless John Keegan. One discussion that impressed me was his theory that the horse warriors of ancient times were so astoundingly successful due, at least partly, to how they made their living, herding, moving and killing animals with their own hands. They studied strategy daily by contending with the contrary forces of nature. They studied tactics daily, confronting the contrary natures of willful animals. They lived logistics. The avalanche of knowledge obtained as a byproductof living in a variable world made them stronger, just generally more competent, than all the rich but static civilized societies around them. Americans were like that at one time. We were doing so many different things, so many big things, in the nineteenth century that we just got good at everything. We were like that in the Sixties too. The Chinese are like that now, and it worries me. Their blossoming competence, nurtured by an alert and flexible Central Committee, will see them through poverty into an era of incredible wealth and power. I think it unlikely – with our blinkered, gridlocked power structure, rampant shortsighted nimbyism, and contentious irrational religious boosterism – that we in the US will be able to keep pace with them.
We really have to be smarter, not so much in choosing our battles, but in choosing our projects, our pursuits, the things that shape us, as a hammer shapes the blacksmith. For example, using farm subsidies as a conscious policy to preserve the competence culture of the American Farmer is something that should be debated by a government that has the strength and independence, and the wit, to choose either way. Realignment and closing of military bases is something our government should be able to decide on. Disposing of nuclear waste is something our government should be able to decide on. If we could really choose our policies, there are a thousand ways we can feed the economy and nurture the diversity of skills and know-how among our people and allies. There are also a thousand frustrated economists out there who could provide insight on these issues, if only we had the ability to act upon their suggestions.
When President Bush announced that we would go to Mars, people snickered behind their hands. When he said we would invade Iraq, people took him seriously. What is the difference between those two commitments?
Here’s another question to ponder. Did the Egyptians build the Pyramids, or did the Pyramids build Egypt?
8/8/2005 2:10 AM
UPDATE: For another viewpoint on China, check in with David's Medienkritik.