Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Falling Behind in Science Again

MON, 10-06-08

SANTA FE - Oct. 4 was the 51st birthday of Sputnik. It might not seem like a particularly important event but that little creature had a bigger impact on the world at the moment of its birth announcement than perhaps any other newborn ever has.
Sputnik didn't have to wait to grow up to start making a difference. The world knew immediately what it's existence meant. America was behind in the technology race, upstaged by a bunch of dummies from nowhere.
How did they do it? A decade earlier we had been the first to develop an atomic bomb. That was mostly with foreign scientists seeking refuge from Hitler and Mussolini. The United States and Russia had both captured their share of German rocket scientists at the end of World War II. But their scientists beat our scientists.
Our military assured us Russia had just gotten lucky and had barely beaten us. We would beat them putting a man into space. But our first attempt fell over on the launch pad. Then the Russians put a dog into space and then Yuri Gagarin. It was very embarrassing and the fault of our schools.
Tons of federal money were poured into our schools, most notably into graduate programs in science and engineering but also into many other fields. And it worked. By the time President Kennedy declared we would beat Russia to the moon, we were ready to compete.
Why was the space race so important? We figured as soon as someone could put a man in space, the next thing would be bombs. They'd be raining down on us from everywhere. We'd been worried about commies under every bed. Now we had to look in the other direction for them too.
Then we learned that dropping bombs from space was a lot harder than it looked. It was much easier to put them on the end of rockets and aim them at each other. So that's where the space race headed. We made it to the moon first and put a big footprint on it. But we never moved on to the moon base once envisioned.
The next step was a star wars defense system, which never materialized but its backers took credit for it breaking the financial back of the Soviet Union. With that, the interest in space waned. A few years ago, President George W. Bush envisioned an effort to return to the moon and thence to Mars. It is still on the drawing board, but other events have intervened.
Gone are a number of projects aimed at exploring the outer edges of science. Projects to develop a space elevator, a space slingshot, a space sail, space nets, water and air harvested from moon dust, a food replicator and plants that grow on demand have all been shelved.
Also shelved was a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane, one of which was being developed here in New Mexico at White Sands Missile Range. NASA has offered some funds to help the fledging commercial space industry, which might be the inexpensive way to get a space program kick started.
Also gone is this nation's super conducting supercollider, a huge, underground atom smasher envisioned by our government in 1987. The New Mexico Legislature held a special session that summer to set aside land in Torrance County in case our application for the project were to be approved.
But we lost out to Texas, which is common when politics is concerned. In wars, it is a different story. New Mexico beats them up every time. But this was politics, which requires something other than bravery, and Texas won. But then it lost. The project was cancelled be fore the digging finished.
And now the project is being finished by the Europeans in a venture called the Large Hadron Collider, beneath Switzerland and France.
America led the world for many decades in the advancement of science and engineering. Now most students in those fields are foreign and we chase them out of our country as soon as they have graduated. What does that hold for our future?

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