Does America still have the ‘Right Stuff’?

It’s been 36 years already since Americans last set foot on the Moon. It could be another 12 before we do again!

NASA director Michael Griffin recently gave a speech in which he basically addressed this question, “Does American have the right stuff?”

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Here are excerpts from the speech. Some of these trends he cites are alarming. The full text of the speech is found here.

Sept 15th

NASA is in the inspiration business. Space exploration inspires the questioning child in each of us to “explore strange new worlds, to seek new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.” I believe that we will, one day, find a civilization on Mars. Ours. The stuff of science fiction slowly turns into reality.

So I ask, why not dare to do the great things, the hard things, the meaningful things which makes our country great? It is a choice, a choice of strategic importance for how we as a small group of people in this room tonight and as a nation choose to spend our time, resources, and energy. Do we choose to spend our time on things which will have lasting meaning and improve the lives of current and future generations, or do we choose to waste our time with trivial pursuits?

The abandonment of the capability our nation purchased at such great price during the Apollo years was a mistake of strategic proportions. NASA’s spending declined from a high of 4.2 percent of our nation’s federal budget to just under 0.6 percent today. The termination of the Apollo program, the failure to sustain America’s journey beyond low-Earth orbit, the destruction of the industrial capability to produce the Saturn V rocket and Apollo spacecraft, and the loss of the future our nation could have had in space, was a policy decision perpetrated by the Nixon Administration and ratified by the Congress of that time, essentially without debate. Our nation was distracted by other pressing issues, and our future on the space frontier suffered as a result.

We have become inured to what should be recognized as alarming trends, the subject of a recent hearing before the House of Representatives Science & Technology Committee. There are half as many bachelor’s degrees in physics awarded today in the United States than when Sputnik was launched in 1957. The number of engineers graduating with bachelor’s degrees declined by over 20% in the last two decades prior to a recent up-tick – but that up-tick is primarily due to an increase in the number of foreign students, who are increasingly returning to their home countries. In 2004, China graduated approximately 500,000 engineers while India graduated 200,000 and the United States graduated 70,000. In 2005, the United States produced more undergraduates in sports exercise than in electrical engineering. In 2006, only 15% of college graduates in the United States received a diploma in engineering or the natural sciences, compared to 38% in South Korea, 47% in France, and 67% in Singapore. The number of PhDs in engineering awarded by U.S. universities to U.S. citizens declined 34% in a single decade. Two-thirds of U.S. engineering PhDs are awarded to foreign nationals. In some surveys, U.S. public schools consistently rank near the bottom in mathematics and science as compared to their global counterparts. We are surpassed by, among others, Azerbaijan, Latvia and Macao.

According a recent report by the RAND Corporation, a few years ago China initiated a fifteen-year “Medium-to Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology” which clearly stated their nation’s goals and means to achieve it. It stated that China aims to become an “innovation-oriented society” by 2020 and a world leader in science and technology by 2050, develop indigenous innovation capabilities, leap-frog into leading positions in new science-based industries, increase R&D expenditures to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2020 (from 1.34 percent in 2005), increase the contribution to economic growth from technological advances to 60%, limit dependence on imported technology to 30%, and become one of the top five countries in the world in the number of patents granted.

China is investing heavily in building space capability because they understand the value of these activities, both as a driver for innovation and a source of national pride in being a member of the world’s most exclusive club. They understand what it means for a society to be pushing the human frontier. China today not only flies its own taikonauts, but also has plans to launch about a hundred satellites over the next five to eight years. It should be no surprise, especially to those who have read Tom Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” or John Kao’s “Innovation Nation”, that this environment in China is breeding thousands of high-tech start-ups.

The Chinese adapted the design of the Russian Soyuz to create their Shenzhou spacecraft. However, the similarity between the two ends at the outer mould line; the Shenzhou spacecraft is both more spacious and more capable. They plan to conduct their first spacewalks and orbital rendezvous operations, and to build their own space station – admittedly simpler than ours – in the coming years. While they have not stated an intention to do so, the Chinese could send a mission around the Moon with the Shenzhou spacecraft, as the United States did with the inspiring Apollo 8 mission back in 1968. China could easily execute such a mission with their planned Long March V rocket, currently under development and reportedly rivaling the capabilities of any expendable rocket in the world today. After visiting their facilities and talking to their engineers two years ago, I have no doubt that they will have it in use, as they plan, by around 2013. I’ve also visited India, and seen their space infrastructure. I was equally impressed.

History shows that nations that shrink from the frontiers of their time, shrink also in their influence on the world stage. Yet we see that Americans today do not feel the urgency for preeminence on the space frontier that we felt in the 1950s and ’60s. Sometimes I wonder if we are a bit tired, or distracted by other urgent crises, to recognize what it is that preeminence means for America.

As we are seeing, other nations seem to realize the importance of space exploration. This is an enterprise in which we can afford to be a leader, and one in which we cannot afford to be a follower. Whether America takes part or not, human exploration of space will go forward in this century. It is only a question of who those explorers are, what languages they speak, and what values they hold. Make no mistake, those who explore space in the coming decades will have The Right Stuff. I only hope that Americans will be among them.

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~ by tellinghistory on September 18, 2008.

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