For a perspective on the nation’s science and technology status, one need look no further than President Bush’s initiative to send Americans back to the moon by 2015.
The plan is to have astronauts spend extended periods of time on the lunar surface gathering data to help develop technologies that will sustain humans there and at other inhospitable locales in the solar system.
While it’s a logical idea to use the Earth’s natural satellite as a way station to ignite research for space exploration, it falls short of challenging scientists and spurring breakthrough innovations, critics say.
“The moon’s not interesting for humans just to go back and plant flags,” says Burt Rutan, aerospace engineer and chief executive officer of Scaled Composites, which produced SpaceShipOne, the world’s first privately funded spacecraft to fly in sub-orbital space. “We ought to be contemplating how to get to the moons of Saturn.”
He suggests the same limiting paradigm is occurring across all science and engineering disciplines, in part because the notion of research itself has changed.
Research is what scientists did in the 1960s, he says. Today, the majority of the nation’s scientists are doing mostly development, finding ways to improve existing technologies and methods.
Many times, people view research and development as a single process. But Rutan points out that research is entirely different than development. “Research is defined by a goal you’re trying to achieve,” he says. “Ask people what they think about what you’re trying to do. If half of them think it’s impossible, then it’s probably research.”
Take the space race of 1961 to 1973, for example. The United States was competing against the Soviet Union to put the first man on the moon. In a span of only seven years, the nation successfully sent crews into space on five different launch systems: Redstone, Atlas, Titan, Saturn I and Saturn V. While the Soviets succeeded in landing the first unmanned aircraft on the moon, the Americans made history with the Apollo 11 astronauts imprinting their boots into the lunar soil.
“If a Third World-like adversary had not beaten us, we wouldn’t have gone to the moon,” says Rutan. “We are creative when we’re scared.”
With the goal attained and the nation’s space status secured, Americans lost the initiative to advance aerospace technologies with the same verve.
“After 1973, we should’ve gone out and developed safer and more affordable competition to the Soviets. But we gave up,” he contends.
Only after two space shuttle tragedies — the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003 — was the industry moved to consider new spacecraft technologies and materials.
“If we don’t take risks, we’re not going to solve the problem,” whether in aerospace design or molecular biology, says Rutan.
But taking chances in the science and engineering fields has become constrained by risk-averse ideologies and expectations.
Scientists are limited by policy-driven measures and bottom-
line prioritizations. Too often, researchers are given boundaries and directions to which they must adhere, and by doing so, these scientists sacrifice creativity and the ability to challenge existing ideas.
“We are forced to do development,” says Rutan.
That, in part, may be why the United States is overdue for a breakthrough technology. Innovations such as electricity, airplanes and computers have occurred every 40 years, with an overlap of 15 years between cycles, he says.
Those leap-ahead technologies tend to occur during a crisis, or shortly thereafter.
“The things that are done the quickest, where you have the guts to take big risks and go out and fly it, those are the ones that are important. Those are the ones that give you breakthroughs.”
Rutan says the ideal environment for such innovations is similar to the one that surrounded aviation pioneers during the age of flight in the early 20th century, when there were scores of entrepreneurs out to invent new flying machines. Between 1908 and 1912, hundreds of airplane designs abounded in 39 countries, with their inventors all vying to fly the one model that would eventually change how humans traveled.
“America is great because we didn’t try to get equal — goals were much higher than that, whether it was the Manhattan Project or stealth,” he says.
To put humans on the moons of Saturn by 2015 may seem a lofty and unrealistic goal. But if non-astronauts are beginning to venture into the outer-limits of the Earth, then perhaps reaching Saturn’s moons isn’t so unreasonable after all.
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