For most of the 20th century, the United States was the envy of the world in nearly every economic sector driven by science and engineering, especially aerospace. As we coast today on investments made by generations that came before us, the technological and economic strength we take for granted is in grave jeopardy.
It’s time for the United States to shape a bold vision for the industry. A vision that will excite generations to come. A vision of space exploration that views the solar system as our backyard, the Milky Way galaxy as our neighborhood, and the universe as our hometown.
Unfortuanely, discovery and exploration have never driven the funding of expensive projects, even if our sanitized memories tell us so, and even if the people doing the discoveries are themselves, discoverers. Instead, we need to do this as a vital investment in our economic strength and ultimately in our capacity to defend ourselves against enemies known and unforeseen.
Just weeks after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth in 1961, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and uttered words that still resonate today:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
But few people remember the sentence that followed, which was a powerful appeal to defeat communism:
If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere.
This was not, of course, the first time that significant monies were spent on military programs. But a review of projects that garner an uncommonly large fraction of a nation’s gross domestic product demonstrates that only three drivers have been sufficient to create them: defense (e.g. Great Wall of China, Manhattan Project, Apollo Project), the promise of economic return (e.g. Columbus Voyages, Magellan Voyages, Tennessee Valley Authority), and praise of power (e.g. Pyramids, Cathedrals, Versailles).
Kennedy knew that while bravery may win battles, science and technology provide security. Science and technology win wars. What’s clear today is that without such investments, the United States will fade in prosperity and our descendents will reflect fondly on a time passed when America shined in the timeline of civilization.
As a scientist and educator, I cannot inspire a classroom of 8th graders to become aerospace engineers if all I can promise them is a job designing airplanes or rockets that are slightly faster or slightly more fuel efficient than the ones of their parents’ generation.
We need a mission plan where our curiosity guides our destinations. We need to share dreams worthy of a nation’s commitment yet worthy of a child’s capacity to imagine. And we know of no subject with greater power to achieve these goals than the prospect of reaching for the stars.
Only in space is the sky not the limit. It’s America’s choice.