December 1, 2009

Back to the future

An ambitious, large-scale science program could reap benefits for the U.S.

Out of political urgencies and pure panache, John F. Kennedy famously declared in 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Aware of the risks of this tight deadline, top scientists questioned the president’s judgment. Was it necessary to send a man to the moon in the next eight years? We could have sent machines, or simply technologically one-upped the Soviets, who were still many stages away from reaching the moon. There certainly was no need to publicly set a deadline so near in the future. Yet Kennedy’s seemingly brazen P.R. stunt laid the groundwork for the technological world we enjoy today. One could even argue that it directly contributed to the ’90s economic boom.

Sending men to the moon in a mere eight years required that the government reach out extensively to the private sector and invest heavily in future technology. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were 13 and 14 years old, respectively. Steve Wozniak was 18. Undoubtedly, the Apollo missions provided meaningful inspiration. But inspiration aside, these icons of our computer age benefitted concretely from innovations and policies pioneered by and for NASA.

Starting in eighth grade, Gates cut his teeth on an ASR-33 teletype terminal and a G.E. computer financed by his private school’s Mothers Club and later, on DEC PDP minicomputers. The rapid development of these very machines correlated with the size, power, and speed specifications necessitated by NASA missions. Requiring huge advancements in integrated circuitry, Apollo’s guidance computer exemplified this trend.

Yet the holistic ideology of “great leaps” meant investment in other areas as well. Prior to Apollo funding cuts, NASA had plans for at least three more lunar missions and visions of even greater achievements in the future. However, these missions were increasingly intended for career scientists, not test pilots. Then, as now, science education came to the forefront of our national consciousness. Jobs and Wozniak, who attended public schools, surely experienced the impact of doubled government expenditures on K-12 education between 1960 and 1970. So, perhaps all three’s eventual dropping out of college had already been offset by some good STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and inspiration.

Back to 2009. President Obama is reaching out to nonprofits and the private sector to improve STEM education. Marshaling the forces of the Discovery Channel and Sony to connect science and entertainment (through middle school–oriented science programming and console-plus-educational-game donations to libraries) is no small feat; however, compared to the sheer emotive force the Apollo missions created, the President’s engagement of these companies falls short. Sesame Street programming, National Lab Day, and educational video games are not enough. Obama needs to unite all of these disparate, thoughtful, intelligent measures under one banner. This means undertaking a large-scale project that is highly visible and in many ways accessible to all. We could pursue manned voyages to Mars or the total conversion of a major city to renewable energy sources.

No, you counter, we can’t do that. At least not now; we don’t have the money. The very same argument spelled the end of the Apollo program—but, by no fault of 1970s legislators, we were ignorant back then. Other than stretching the boundaries of human knowledge, the Apollo missions’ gifts to this country’s civilian population had not yet been felt. Now, we know them as the technological staples of our daily lives. Innovations in communications and computing power have led to unparalleled economic growth. Off Wall Street, they have enriched our quality of life. Then-Senator Walter Mondale wanted to cut NASA funding so that he could feed every family in America. Some of the technologies engineered for Apollo have created whole new industries, enabling families to feed themselves.

Politics both created and destroyed the Apollo Program. Yet, thanks to the many lives and dollars devoted to NASA during those years, we have reaped enormous technological, economic, and educational rewards for decades. If Obama wants to improve STEM education, it’s time to initiate a new cycle of wide-eyed imagining and feverish working, scientific competition and human solidarity. It’s time to go back to the future.

— Liat Spiro is a second-year in the College.