Can America Do Big Things Again?

Neal Stephenson, long one of my favorite authors, has a crucial and timely article asking whether America can still do the “big stuff” anymore. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Americans landed men on the Moon, cured several diseases, increased the ability for the world to feed itself, and invented the modern technological age. Even in the former half of the 20th Century we invented the airplane, created the Atomic Age, won two World Wars, and survived a depression worse than the one we are living in now.

But what have we done lately? Stephenson notes our cultural and technological malaise:

My lifespan encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. This summer, at the age of 51—not even old—I watched on a flatscreen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.

Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.

Stephenson points out that we are no longer a society that embraces risk in the way that we have in previous years. If we want to advance as a society and continue to provide a better life for our children, we have to embrace the idea that no great advancement comes without substantial risk. Yet our culture, our politics, our whole society has turned its back on the spirit that produces the next batch of great entrepreneurs.

The Lost Spirit Of American Entrepreneurship

From childhood, we are systematically smothering the initiative of our children. We fret about vaccinations (one of the greatest life-saving technologies of the last 200 years), we worry about them falling on the playground. We have overblown fears that any moment a child predator will snatch them up, and we imprint that fear of the world onto them.

We don’t let our children explore the way they used to. The chemistry set has been practically banned out of existence. It used to be that children could learn about engineering and science by actually building things themselves—instead, we encourage children to color inside the lines, sit down, do what they are told, and accept the guiding hand of authority.

That is not how you raise a culture of entrepreneurial risk-takers. That’s how you raise a culture of middle-managers.

And that same aversion to risk continues on in our politics. Our politics is not about the future, but about the past. Look at the Democratic Party: what is their bold political position for the future? It’s going back to the New Deal. For that matter, the Republicans aren’t much better: they envision a return to a more restrained system of government—but they can’t seem to elucidate why that benefits the future of the country except in the most nebulous way.

That’s because our politicians are more concerned about preserving the past spoils system than launching the future. Our political class suffers from a severe lack of vision: instead of bolding charting new courses, our political system has become largely about managing our decline. That isn’t all bad—we don’t really want a system of government that leaps from bad idea to bad idea. But our Founders didn’t want a static system of government either: they wanted the states to retain sovereignty so that they could become laboratories of democracy and experiment with new and better systems of governance. But the creeping centralization of Washington has eliminated the ability of the states to do much other than comply with the demands of the D.C. nomenklatura.

Reclaiming America’s Future

What can we do to restore America’s future? We have to stop placing roadblocks in our own path. What we need can’t be legislated from the top-down, it has to come from the grassroots up. We need a culture that encourages and fosters responsible risk-taking. That requires parents to stop living in fear and let their children learn. That requires a culture that doesn’t coddle future generations, but gives them room to explore. That requires us to stop sliding comfortably into decline and start taking personal responsibility for the future.

We are still a culture that can do great things. We still have innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos who can provide instructive examples. We could, if we desired, return to the Moon and create a lasting human community outside the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. We could, if we desired, became a nation where great technological leaps once again happened in the garages of individual innovators. There are subcultures in America that are not only dedicated to making things again, but could revolutionize manufacturing for the entire world.

America in 2031 can be a country where small innovators use computers and 3D printers to design amazing new technologies and take them from the drawing board to reality in hours rather than days. Or, America in 2031 can be a country where what few resources we have left are being fought over in an intergenerational battle between young and old.

We can’t hope for government to solve our current economic and cultural crisis—only rekindling the American spirit of innovation can get the economy growing again and allow us to have another period of growth and optimism.

America can to great things again. The question is whether we’re willing to do what’s necessary to get there.


The Lost Moon

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, culminating in the first human footsteps on the Moon.

Charles Krauthammer has a deeply thoughtful piece on the Moon we left behind:

But look up from your BlackBerry one night. That is the moon. On it are exactly 12 sets of human footprints — untouched, unchanged, abandoned. For the first time in history, the moon is not just a mystery and a muse, but a nightly rebuke. A vigorous young president once summoned us to this new frontier, calling the voyage “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” We came, we saw, we retreated.

That we ascended to the stars, but then turned our backs to them shows just how foolish our society can be.

Apollo was probably unsustainable, but had we allowed space to be another place where human creativity, ingenuity, and daring could have thrived rather than a sterile “commons” visited only by state actors, our present could have looked much more like the future depicted in 2001.

If an alien race were to come to Earth and see what we have done—or not done—in the past 40 years, I doubt they’d understand it. How a civilization can pull back from such a dazzling achievement would be beyond the understanding of any rational creature.

Campaign 2008, Nerd-O-Rama, Politics

Obama’s Space Plans: A Study In Incoherence

Sen. Obama has released his plan for space exploration. As a case study, it demonstrates the lack of coherence or policy judgment that has marked the Obama campaign. Space policy expect Rand Simberg has a detailed analysis of Obama’s space plan and finds it lacking.

For example, Obama’s campaign can’t seem to make up its mind about NASA’s COTS program:

Obama will stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate spaceflight capabilities. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services is a good model of government/industry collaboration.

Which is all well and good, until one reads further down. Then Obama’s space plan says the opposite:

Obama will evaluate whether the private sector can safely and effectively fulfill some of NASA’s need for lower earth orbit cargo transport.

So, COTS is a “good model,” but Obama plans to “evaluate” it anyway. It’s the sort of muddleheaded stuff that Obama has been giving the electorate in just about every field. Simberg notes that this is a document clearly written by committee, and it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment.

Simberg notes something else disturbing about the Obama campaign’s attitude towards ideas not their own:

This part struck me (and didn’t surprise me):

Lori Garver, an Obama policy adviser, said last week during a space debate in Colorado that Obama and his staff first thought that the push to go to the moon was “a Bush program and didn’t make a lot of sense.” But after hearing from people in both the space and education communities, “they recognized the importance of space.” Now, she said, Obama truly supports space exploration as an issue and not just as a tool to win votes in Florida.

I’m not sure that Lori helped the campaign here. What does that tell us about the quality and cynicism of policy making in the Obama camp? They opposed it before they were for it because it was George Bush’s idea? And does that mean that space policy was just about votes in Florida before this new policy? I know that there are a lot of BDS sufferers who oppose VSE for this reason, and this reason alone, but it’s a little disturbing that such (non)thinking was actually driving policy in a major presidential campaign.

Sadly, I think that’s exactly how the Obama camp thinks—or more accurately doesn’t think. Obama is not a dumb person, not by a longshot. But he doesn’t have a wide grasp of policy. He has an incisive legal mind, but when it comes to issues like taxes, foreign policy, trade, and other major issues, he’s utterly reliant on a cadre of advisors. That is not healthy for a President. A President needs good advisors, to be sure, but ultimately the job of President is the world’s toughest management job. Nothing in this document or anything else that Obama has done suggests that he has the management skills to be an effective President. A country can’t be lead by committee, it needs someone to provide leadership and direction. At least as far as space policy is concerned, Obama shows little leadership or direction.

To be fair, that doesn’t mean that Obama’s space plan is all bad. He says some of the right things. But he also is against the “weaponization” of space—something which has already begun and requires more than the typical feckless diplomatic overtures to contain. He is for more international cooperation in space—which is all well and good except that tensions with Russia already could cripple us. He’s for accelerating the timeline for the Shuttle replacement—which is an absolute necessity.

What would a truly bold space policy be? How about a government sponsored X-Prize to truly foster space exploration? A policy that ditches the overcomplicated Ares/Contellation program and goes with the better-designed DIRECT 2.0 launch system?

Obama says the right things, especially with the idea of having a better connection between the Oval Office and NASA and other interested parties. The problem is that Obama clearly hasn’t thought his space policy through enough to come to any clear policy conclusions. Even where he says the right things, there’s no guarantee that he’ll really enact them. A document drafted by committee is not the same as a bold policy, and when it comes to the future of humanity’s exploration of space, Obama gives us precious little change that anyone can truly believe in.