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Delicious Martian Apple Pie

Fri, 11/06/2009 - 3:50am
by Joel Hans, Associate Editor, IMPO

A colleague of mine, David Mantey (editor of Product Design and Development), wrote a column a while ago titled, “We Landed On The Moon, Big Deal.” There’s no mincing words here; it’s easy enough to tell what his stance on NASA is.

One of David’s main contentions is that NASA does not, and cannot, invoke the same soaring heroics and national pride it used to back in the moon-landing era, which is a fair assumption. We “young’uns” haven’t been exposed to any singular achievement that rallied our belief in the agency. And he’s right: only the constant threat of explosions gets people riled up and interested.

Admittedly, the angle I was originally going to take when battling David’s anti-NASA sentiment was an examination of how the agency’s innovations affect our daily lives. There’s too many to count, but I’ll throw in satellite dishes (so we can sit around not thinking about how awesome NASA is), fire-retardant suits for firefighters (so we can bash on NASA even after our house burns down), smoke detectors (see previous quip), and invisible braces (so we aren’t embarrassed when talking about how NASA is a waste of taxpayer money).

But NASA was not founded with the hope of designing new technology for American consumers, and that’s certainly not its purpose now. It’s only our luck that we can benefit from NASA’s brilliance.

The problem is that NASA’s mission isn’t particularly tangible. But it is simple: curiosity. In a material- and results-driven society, it’s hard for people to understand why we would spend money on something that might produce a positive benefit. It’s like we need to land on Mars to order to justify spending the money to get to Mars. I’m not sure what happened to our affinity for curiosity and exploration. Ever wondered what’s on the other side of that hill? Well, you go walk and see. On the other side of that big ocean? You build a boat and sail a straight course. What’s the difference?

In his column, David wrote, “We didn’t have media outlets scrutinizing the bottom line 40 years ago. Landing on the moon didn’t have a price tag.” That’s true. But all the potential that stands to be discovered outside of our atmosphere shouldn’t have a price tag, either. Who knows, maybe Mars is covered with groves of delicious Martian apples—we just haven’t found them yet.

But if we’ve fallen so by the wayside that curiosity and exploration are the first victim to the fiscal chopping block, then we’ve got more pressing issues than a generational gap and a youth that’s disinterested in our country’s space program—issues that even extend to those generations who did witness the big deal of man landing on the moon.

Manufacturing has been at America’s base for a long time now, but now I feel as though this base, in addition to the “youth” David and I both represent, have lost their sense of connection to NASA’s purpose. How is NASA any different that one of the countless manufacturers in this country, other than their source of funding? All manufacturers undergo the same processes that our space program does, from R&D to prototyping to a final product. Every company is searching for that holy grail of their industry—NASA is no different.

So why all the NASA hate? Where does the misunderstanding of NASA’s purpose come from? Is it a problem with the youth, or has our space program really become irrelevant to the modern American? Is this, perhaps, the same reason manufacturing as a whole is struggling to recruit a new generation of workers and stay in the public spotlight?

If you ask me, one cannot espouse the importance of American manufacturing while denying NASA a piece of the pie. Especially when that pie might some day be filled with delicious Martian apples.

Think NASA is a waste of money? Or are you like me, patiently waiting for your slice of that Martian apple pie? Send me your thoughts at Joel.Hans@advantagemedia.com.

Comments:

Geoff

In our corner of the manufacturing world we have a saying “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Along with that, my wife and I were recently watching the news and a story came on about kids in the Chicago school system learning and acting Shakespeare. She commented at the end that it would be better to teach these kids how to make a living instead of about Shakespeare. I held my tongue and kept silent after hearing that. One of the reasons we have been married for 27 years. Anyway, what I would have said was that not everyone is cut out to do the same thing. We need the entertainers, we need the garbage men, we need the cleaning service at the hotel and we need people working at an institution that has a goal to do something that may seem impossible or have no apparent need at the time. Imagine if we didn’t have people asking, what if?

In a management course in the earlier days of my existence in manufacturing, I was told about the life cycle of a company. They said all companies reach a point where they are no longer advancing and they are happy with what they are doing. Unfortunately, shortly after that the downfall starts. Are we at that point now? Are we in a decline that will only end one way? How long will it take? Not as long as it took us to get to where we are now. So, if we continue on the path of limiting the advances we can make in the future, even if they don’t make sense now, we are surely headed for a decline!

 

John C.

I’m one of the old guys who lived through, what I would consider, the second greatest story ever told. On July 20, 1969, I was at KSC while Apollo 11 was descending toward the lunar surface. For a 10 year old, it just didn’t get any better than that. I’m still hooked, and consider myself somewhat of a well read, minor-league expert on Mercury-Gemini-Apollo history.

So, you’d think that as an Apollo enthusiast, I would be cheering for the Orion/Constellation project. However, I actually don’t see much value in returning to the moon or going to Mars until we develop better ways to travel in space that preclude the use of chemical rockets. Otherwise, we’re just employing a slightly updated version of what we’d already mastered in the ‘60s (Apollo on steroids), with no significant technological advancements.

The next priority should be the development of a dedicated, orbital warning system along with ground-based rockets to deflect or destroy asteroids. Our “Titanic” mentality regarding this threat is nonsensical. While we have the technological brains to save ourselves, we’re just not smart enough to set relevant priorities.

Of course, it will require a disaster on a populated plot of US soil before anyone will mandate a call to action. Look at what just happened in October; and it came out of nowhere: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33540411/ns/technology_and_science-space/. Apparently, the main-stream media didn’t see the need to present this story because the average, shallow-thinking American would likely say “so what, it’s just Indonesia, they’re the ones who get hit with tidal waves and earthquakes all the time; what’s the big deal?”

True, it’s not the U.S…yet…, but maybe our luck is running out.

Unless of course, one lands on Wall Street.

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