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EDITORIAL

“It’s Not Rocket Science” . . . but Maybe it Should Be

TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

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Has anybody actually noticed something? Something missing? I was looking around the other day for the U.S. space program and couldn’t find it anywhere, well certainly not the manned space program. I grew up with a space program always sort of, well . . . being there, and it is a strange feeling not being able to find it even among the spare change in the sofa. In the summer of 1969 a bunch of friends and I assembled three black-and-white TVs, one for each network (cable? What’s that?), so as not to miss a minute of the ongoing coverage of the first moon landing. It is thus that geeks are born. It’s been a long time since a national/world event generated such enthusiasm.

Oh, NASA is still around, but grass is going to start growing in the cement cracks of once-dynamic launch complexes. We’re still launching unmanned probes to interesting places, but they seem to be mostly of interest to specialists—not a bad thing, but there’s no pizzazz any more, no atmosphere of “The Right Stuff.” Even the latter years of seemingly routine space shuttle flights could generate a certain level of excitement because the assumption was that the shuttle was the preliminary stages of even more ambitions explorations such as a manned mission to Mars.

Now why this nostalgic romantic outburst, you may ask. Yes, it does have to do with technology... and economy... and innovation. Man landed on the moon before the advent of the microprocessor by dint of sheer competitive will and creativity in a (supposed) dead heat race with the Soviet Union. Since then uncountable advances in microelectronics, medical instrumentation, telecommunications, systems design and more originated to meet the demands of the space program and spawned products, companies and new branches of industry. These have branched out into both the civilian sector and into the defense industry. They have enhanced the quality of life and provided economic growth.

From our present position with the economy appearing to be slowly starting up again, should we ask ourselves if the technology sector has enough motivation, energy and focus to grow the way we would all like to see it?  Or could we benefit from a national goal like a renewed space program or some other huge project such as a technically modernized national infrastructure of roads, rail and/or power grid? Would such a project be government funded as was (is) the space program, or would/could it be powered solely by private initiative? All this presupposes the basic question of whether we or our industry even need such a thing.

It is interesting that the space program for all its inspiration, energy and positive results was not in and of itself a “useful” undertaking. Putting men on the moon was mainly a matter of national prestige considered of intrinsic value during the era of the Cold War. However, its effects had extremely practical value. Would we even have an Internet today had it not been for the space program? What would be the state of medical technology? How many companies, born well after the zenith of the space program but as a result of the technological waves unleashed by it, would even be in existence today if it had not happened?

I, for one, would be delighted with a revival of an ambitious manned space program, but I guess we have gotten much more “practical” in recent years. The technology we could throw at a Mars mission today and that which we would have to develop to really pull it off would be tremendous. But some other ambitious national—or even international—project could address more practical needs like assuring adequate world water supplies, food availability, clean energy, or ocean management. All of these things could and would spur technological innovation, be they practical or merely visionary. That would translate once more into economic growth and a lot of really cool embedded devices.

There is that expression we’ve all used, “Well, it’s not rocket science.” This implies that whatever we are doing or struggling with is actually not the most difficult task there is. It could be a problem in rocket science and then what would we do? I hope we would rise to the challenge. I would hope that if learning rocket science was necessary to accomplish a goal that we would simply do that. The question here is, do we need such a challenge to rise to in order to move ahead? I think we do.