A few months ago I sent this meme to a friend of mine, an engineer who works for NASA. It’s the famous photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, with the caption “We got here with a camera less powerful than your cell phone.” I thought it was both amusing and mind-boggling. Needless to say, today the calculations that go into all parts of a space mission, from conception to execution, are almost all carried out on extremely advanced computers. My friend, however, saw something completely different in the image. His first response was, “It tells you that space exploration is a political will problem being sold as a technical problem.” And I think he is right, in a very important way. Extremely complex technical problems could be solved if only there was the political backing to propel us to the solutions.
We all have some idea of the national narrative of space exploration during the Cold War. The “space race” is a recognizable phenomenon that brings to mind Sputnik, the Apollo missions, and a national direction of energy, money, and imagination toward space. NASA, Space, and “the future” were exciting and there was a national narrative that looked forward to American dominance of the starry skies, backed by positive public opinion and strong government support. The political highlight may have been Kennedy’s backing of a “moon race,” saying “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” There was also, at least so we remember, a turning of the american imagination toward space and the future of technology, represented then by movies and television series like The Jetsons, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and a proliferation of B horror and sci-fi movies about space exploration and aliens.
Popular support for the space missions and, especially, the funding of NASA, was not as strong as we like to remember. In fact, almost all of the enthusiasm for the new space program may have been generated by children, who were eager to play with space-based toys and imagine themselves as astronauts, while their more practical parents worried about the huge expenditures that were devoted to NASA in a foolhardy race toward a rock a few hundred thousand miles away. Public opinion polling showed support for NASA at less than 35% for most of the 1960’s. Despite this negative public opinion, the fact is that the government and nation did decide to turn their attention strongly and resolutely toward the solution of a scientific problem, and that decision resulted in huge advances in many fields of technology, science, mathematics, and engineering.
Of course, NASA and space exploration do not necessarily remain the most important direction of today’s political will-power. That is not to say that I think NASA should lose its federal support. The percentage of NASA’s budget within the total national budget is less than 1% which is not a cause for major consternation, and the program still provides important scientific and economic development. But new, major directions in government funding for science and innovation, especially in areas that have major economic importance, should be seriously considered.
There are several areas that could warrant a new focus from our political leaders, new medical research and new energy policies for instance, but, unfortunately, none of them are as sexy as space travel, moon landings, or jet-packs. It is hard to imagine a group of kindergartners playing at being hydro-electric engineers or photovoltaic technologies experts. Designing new genetic therapies while considering their ethical application isn’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. And this only speaks to the children. New advances in technology, and the money it takes to achieve them, are viewed by adults with less enthusiasm than hostility.
The counter-argument to this is that the adults are right, the government should keep out of scientific development and the new advances that will prove profitable will be supported by corporations. As Fred Kaplan argues in a piece on bio-fuel and the military, sometimes the government is the best point for the initial development of new technologies. This is because corporations are all, necessarily, looking out for their bottom lines, sometimes without the ability to turn their organizations in radically new directions that may or may not pay off. Research and development is an expensive proposition, and the government can help cover some of those necessary expenses. As Kaplan says,
But some of modern history’s most revolutionary devices started out as too expensive; and they would have stayed that way—they might never have got off the ground—had the federal government not created the market. And since, in American politics, the military and space programs have been the federal government’s only sources of manufacturing, it’s the Pentagon and NASA that have created those markets.
The solution to this needs to be a political leadership that cuts through a lot of the political opposition to new technologies, and instead brings us forward. Instead of politicians who are worried about public perception, we need leaders who recognize new areas that need to be explored and who are unafraid to chart a course toward them. Ultimately, the solutions will validate the struggle to achieve them.