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Convincing Congress to support more funding for NASA means working with others to advocate for a broader push for increased R&D funding in the federal government. (credit: J. Foust)

Aligning forces to reawaken the American Dream


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The Chinese government has been selling their people on the idea of the “Chinese Dream.” They are selling their people on the concept of a modern prosperous society in the future, full of opportunity. That sounds very familiar.

NASA and the world of spaceflight, human and robotic, do not exist outside of the reality facing the country. NASA is facing the same financial pressure affecting the federal government overall, as well as many individuals and organizations in the private sector.

In the past several years it could be real easy to wonder what happened to the American Dream. Median household income has been declining for over a decade. In the last couple of years in particular, college graduates have been having a difficult time finding jobs. I know several young graduates from the last three years who have struggled to get their careers started. We have an aging population that is drawing more and more benefits from the federal government as the number of retirees swells. In this environment, NASA has been getting a smaller and smaller share of the federal pie. In the meantime, our government is steadily becoming more dysfunctional as the two sides disagree on how to solve our problems. It’s not hard to get discouraged about the future and what kind of country we are leaving to the next generation.

NASA and the world of spaceflight, human and robotic, do not exist outside of the reality facing the country. Much of the Western world is also facing the same kind of economic stagnation that has high unemployment, especially among the young. NASA is facing the same financial pressure affecting the federal government overall, as well as many individuals and organizations in the private sector. If you look at the polls asking if people believe the country is on the right track, it has not been one of our more optimistic periods in American history. That same lack of optimism about the future is one of the biggest reasons for what I see as a common lack of optimism for our future in space. Many people commenting on space websites express pessimism that NASA even has much of a future in human spaceflight.

The twentieth century was often referred to as the American Century. It was the century the United States rose to become the world’s preeminent military, economic, technological, cultural, and space power. We as a nation lived the American Dream. We built massive dams, large universities, large cities, suburban lifestyles, a nationwide interstate highway system, and numerous other projects that built our wealth and global prestige. We even built things we didn’t have to, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Mount Rushmore, lots of spectacular museums, magnificent sports stadiums; we also flew to the Moon. We won the Cold War. After the first Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union we were left as the world’s only superpower. Things were looking good.

Reality tends to intrude at times upon the dreams and aspirations of individuals and nations. September 11th happened. A couple of messy wars interrupted our lives and the world we were used to. Technology has transformed how our economy and lives unfold, for good and for bad. New competition has emerged from around the globe.

I recently came across a quote from one of my favorite authors of all time, Alexis de Toqueville. In 1835, he wrote, “America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement. The idea of novelty is there indissolubly connected with the idea of amelioration. No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man; and in his eye what is not yet done is only what he has not yet attempted to do.” My first reaction to reading de Toqueville’s words was, “What happened to us?”

The writings of de Toqueville on his observations of America and what it means to be American, while probably exaggerated, inspired those in Europe who wanted to share this culture of unlimited possibilities to emigrate. It helped build the belief that we could overcome our limits and thrive. Immigrants, while not always finding as great a life as they thought was possible, often worked very hard to give a better life to their children. It built the belief that each new generation would do better than their parents. Alexis de Toqueville’s writings helped inspire and create the American Dream. For that alone, this nation owes him a great debt of gratitude.

Some pundits say that the 21st century will be the Chinese Century because they believe China is poised to take the economic and military leadership of the world. Predictions like these are as reliable as the ones that came out after the end of the Cold War, though. Some outcomes are just too hard to accurately predict. In hindsight, they usually are far more understandable.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is considered by many economists to be the foundation of modern economic theory. While that may be, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin may offer a better model. I don’t think Darwinism can be use to predict economic outcomes much better than other models, but to me it better explains the driving forces when studying the past. And as such, it can help in developing policies for moving into the future.

Darwin points out how species that adapt to the changes in their environment quickly are the ones that thrive and grow. Species that adapt slowly to changes in their environment better hope that their environment changes slowly, or else they will go extinct. No one can honestly say that our economic environment hasn’t changed radically in the last couple of decades. It is time to adapt or die.

I think it was highly unlikely that President Kennedy or Congress had any idea that this side benefit would happen when they pushed Apollo through. The technology developed to achieve Kennedy’s goal helped enable our high-tech world today.

The first step for an intelligent species to adapt is to understand the environment around us and what the changes are. Understanding the details of those changes do matter greatly. First of all, we have a rapidly aging population, as does Western Europe, Japan, and even China. Second, the developing world is rapidly catching up to the West in economic and technical capabilities, as well as education levels. Third, the global economy is allowing economic activity to rapidly move to the most economically efficient spots on the globe without much regard for borders. Fourth, technology appears to be destroying more jobs than it’s creating in many industries. It is one of the greatest periods of change ever in the global economy. For many people, change of this magnitude can be scary and overwhelming, and political leaders of both parties appear poorly equipped to lead us through this time period.

When President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, he unleashed a furious pace of spending on new technology that had effects across the country, including what would become Silicon Valley. By 1964, the Apollo program was purchasing 60 percent of everything being produced by Silicon Valley firms at basically any price these firms wanted to charge. NASA needed huge advances in electronics if they had any hope of meeting the goals of the program. Funding startups became unusually easy for a short but critical moment in time. It allowed Silicon Valley to reach critical mass of becoming the world’s foremost nursery of technological genius and products.

I think it was highly unlikely that President Kennedy or Congress had any idea that this side benefit would happen when they pushed Apollo through. The technology developed to achieve Kennedy’s goal helped enable our high-tech world today. It is a major reason why we have laptop computers, smartphones, and the Internet, among other innovations. These advances in technology accelerated by Apollo have literally lifted hundreds of millions of people around the globe out of poverty and given them a future. It is why China is even talking about the Chinese Dream. It is why they can promote the African Dream. It is one of the major reasons why we are in this crazy state of economic change.

If we have at the moment a fairly dysfunctional government and a rapidly changing economic reality that makes growth in personal income difficult, we need to learn from the past to figure out how to adapt. I don’t think we’re going to get good leadership from the top. We need to find it where we can and try to build on it.

I have long been in favor of spending more on the space program and many other R&D initiatives. I believe these programs help drive our economic future. That is why I was highly disappointed back in 1993 at the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider. Its budget problems were a mirror of what has been going on with the James Webb Space Telescope. Its cancellation meant that with construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the US is no longer the center of the universe for particle physics. While I’m not against international cooperation, I am against giving up our lead in the technologies that will drive our economy in the decades and centuries to come. To me that is shortsighted and a crime against future generations of Americans.;

Right now federal R&D spending, including space, is not in a growth mode and I don’t see that turning around without a change in mindset. The vast majority of the public and our leaders do not seem to see the immediate benefit of reversing that trend. By letting our space program wander without a vision and policies to accomplish the goals defined by a vision, we are committing another crime against future generations.

Space advocates I talk with are generally frustrated with the direction and lack of vision we have with our space program. If you listen to comments made by some of our former astronauts in the past couple of years such as Story Musgrave, Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell, and the late Neil Armstrong, you know that they have shared this frustration.

A big part of the problem is that this nation does not have a coherent policy for how to get back on track and grow our economy, which requires investment in federal R&D. We need to take back our lead in key areas where we have lost it. We need to push ahead with research that will put us in the lead in new areas that may come to define this century.

Politicians have long talked about spending on education and how we need to build a culture of innovation. In fact, we already have a culture of innovation, but one that we are in danger of letting die from strangulation. While spending on education is needed, if we don’t have the jobs in research and development that can employ the graduates in STEM fields, what’s the point?

I am in favor of significantly more spending in R&D provided the spending is in areas grounded in sound science and economics. I am not in favor of R&D spending just because it is in a district of a powerful member of Congress. I am also in favor of federal spending on fundamental research, but not product development and manufacturing that should be paid for by commercial interests. Once the research is done, the products coming from the research should survive as much as possible on commercial merit. Anything else gets an unqualified government trying to pick economic winners and losers. So how do we get national policies that promote economic growth? And why is it so important for both our nation and the world that we do so?

It’s been a long time since we’ve had leadership in Washington who understands how important it is to be on top in R&D for maintaining our nation’s economic standing. If they do understand, they have not been willing to spend political capital to sell it to the nation. Short-term problems and short-term fixes are what keep the voters’ attention.

One of the frustrations I have with space advocacy organizations such as the National Space Society is that their voices aren’t loud enough. Congress considers them a minor group who represents a small group of voters.

The last president who really embraced the big ideas federal science and technology spending could advance was Ronald Reagan. This is surprising in one way because of his opposition to big government. Yet, in another respect it was not surprising because of his love for big ideas. Space Station Freedom, which eventually morphed into the ISS, was started under his administration. He supported the development of the National Aerospace Plane, and pushed his Strategic Defense Initiative. While the National Aerospace Plane never flew, it was responsible for great advancements in technology, including computational fluid dynamics. While we don’t have all the orbital laser battle stations, nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers, and most of the other big ideas from the SDI program, plenty of technology developed from the program has found its way into military and civilian use. In addition, SDI did help us win the Cold War by its very existence and influence.

One of the frustrations I have with space advocacy organizations such as the National Space Society (of which I am a member) is that their voices aren’t loud enough. Congress in reality considers them a minor group who represents a small group of voters. Each of them have a enough clout to get meetings with members of Congress only to be told we have tight budgets and we wish we could do something, but not now.

If individual interest groups don’t have enough clout to push politicians to develop policies for economic growth, it’s time for these groups to ally themselves with other advocates of R&D investment to push for policies that promote long-term economic growth and to explain how each of them can be part of it. Instead of fighting for a share of a shrinking pot of federal R&D spending, groups supporting space, energy, biotech, physics, and businesses of all types need to unite behind the idea that we need a national commitment to leadership in the fundamental sciences and technologies that have the potential to lift the nation as a whole. It will create new industries that the nation and the world need to employ millions of people entering the workforce.

Often during economic downturns, businesses under stress cut back on product development. That is a mistake that should be avoided at all costs if possible. Chrysler, Ford, and GM have all emerged stronger to varying degrees from the worst of the economic downturn, not because they cut back on new product development but because they kept developing the better cars they have rolling out now. I think the same principle applies to our nation and our economy as a whole. Now is not the time to cut back on R&D spending. Now is the time to double down on what has been proven to be a driver of our economy and a creator of jobs.

When I talk with my representative in Congress, a plan for rebuilding and reinvigorating America is one of the things I bring up. This is what space advocates need to push, not just a focus on NASA.

NASA, the NSF, NOAA, and a number of other agencies have programs that, in one way or another, push basic R&D of science and technology internally and at private companies and universities around the country. This is the seed corn for our future. Government spending on R&D has a long history of developing new industries. It is what could still make the 21st century the second American Century. I do believe that a stronger more vigorous space program can and should be a part of revitalizing the American Dream.

When I talk with my representative in Congress, a plan for rebuilding and reinvigorating America is one of the things I bring up. This is what space advocates need to push, not just a focus on NASA. This is what advocates for other types of R&D spending need to call for, as well as companies and individuals. Selling Congress on the importance of growing the R&D pie is more important to the nation’s future than pushing one individual agency or program. It can reawaken the American Dream and, with it, the dreams of becoming a true spacefaring nation.

I regularly go to my congressman’s town hall meetings. This is where your voice is louder then sending letters, e-mails or making phone calls. The more people that show up at their representatives’ town hall meetings and argue for the same thing, the better the chances are that we’ll get it. Arguing for policies beyond a space agenda that other parts of society can support provides a better chance of being listened to. If the unfolding century is going to be the Chinese Century, I want it to be because China earns it and not because we rolled over and conceded it to them. Hope alone does not provide positive change. A bold vision coupled with bold leadership can inspire hope that will lead to positive change. It is time to reawaken the American Dream by aligning the forces needed to support it.


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