The Next Big Thing
Between the remarkable explorations of Lewis and Clark and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the US were sixty-five years of progressive encroachments on the wilderness. If Madison had mandated a crash program to populate the West using giant Conestoga wagons, it would have cost a lot and accomplished very little. Since 1969 the Space Program has languished due to the rational, pragmatic, temperate pace imposed by NASA’s unworkable Shuttle and its philosophical dead-weight. (Read this 1980 article by Gregg Easterbrook, courtesy of Slate.) The spark that lit Von Braun’s fire was the flight to the Moon. The spark that will light the next fire is nothing less than the vision of a functioning colony on Mars. President Bush does not really believe in this. Certainly he is not excited about this and has no way to communicate the same sort of thrill that Kennedy was able to inject into the challenge of his decade.
The goal of the Shuttle should have been to create a self-sustaining colony in orbit. This would have been very difficult. It would have challenged us, wouldn’t it? Moreover, we should have instituted at least one productive manufacturing initiative that could only be done in Space. How about canning the perfect vacuum of Space for sale on Earth? Making perfect ball bearings in zero gravity? Something quasi-economic. I don’t really know enough to know why it can’t be done. Maybe we need less knowledgeable people in the Space Program. I do know that vision trumps expertise.
The Shuttle is dead. It makes me cry, but we have killed it with timidity and pointless missions. The one thing they did which was worth doing was the Hubble, and now they won’t take the necessary steps to keep it going. The Shuttle should be scrapped now. It’s like a yacht, a large hole in space into which we throw money. I say, put the money into the "Orient Express". Here is a program that would increase our capacity by an order of magnitude, and it is faltering now for lack of vision and a lack of will. Only the US can pull it off. The potential payoff is huge – in terms of defense, transportation, economic growth, educational motivation, innovative spin-offs and as a stepping-stone to Mars. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan. The man had vision.
Project analysts who look at cost vs. benefit never include the benefits of excitement, passion and increased capacity. The way people really learn is by being challenged. Hard problems make strong minds. If we’re going to be a society of knowledge workers, we have to start considering how that knowledge flows into society. Putting a significant number of our people on the steepest part of the learning curve pays off in ways that cannot be easily calibrated or predicted.
So, I’ll ask again. Did Egypt make the Pyramids or did the Pyramids make Egypt? Did Europe build the Cathedrals or vice versa? Did the effort invested in the Cathedrals provide the innovative impetus that eventually lead to the Industrial Revolution? In my opinion, you don’t learn to drive a truck by pushing wheelbarrows.
8/11/2005 12:13 AM