On this website is documented my family’s aviation and yachting activities. Coupled with our involvement in the deep foundation industry, the thing that ties all of this together is transportation: getting from one place to another. Integral to that was the desire to advance the methods and technology by which we do things, both in and out of transportation.
I recently read a book I picked up entitled Space Frontier by Wernher von Braun. It’s basically a series of articles he wrote for Popular Science from the early 1960’s until just before Apollo 11 in 1969, covering various aspects of the space program and accurately describing the moon mission that shortly took place. von Braun was more than a rocket scientist: he was a visionary who saw us going to Mars in 1986, and had a good idea what it would take to accomplish this.
When I read this book, the first thing that came back to mind was the tight relationship between NASA’s civilian efforts and that of the military. That was inevitable, not only because most of the early astronauts were military pilots, but also because rocketry was very much a province of the military. I wish I had read this book before or during my time in the aerospace industry; it would have given me context for my work.
But the other thing that came in reading this book was an ache–an ache for a time when we were literally reaching for the stars (or at least the moon.) The passing of that time–something that basically lost its momentum after the moon shots and never quite got it back–is a point in history when something seriously died in this country, and that was a general commitment to the advancement of our state with science.
I loved the space program, especially after we moved to Palm Beach and we were down the coast from the Kennedy Space Centre. Jack Kennedy, whose Palm Beach compound was not far from our house, had challenged a nation in shock over the Soviets’ early unmanned and manned (and womanned!) achievements to reach the moon by the end of the 1960’s. The Gemini program, which transitioned us to the moon shots, was favourite television viewing. (After Apollo 11, I went away to prep school, which hindered my ability to follow such things.) I was aware of the technological spin-offs of the program, such as fuel cells, solar panels (mostly for satellites,) and many other things.
But by the time Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the moon, the mood had changed. The 1960’s were a decidedly Luddite time; technology was blamed for despoiling the environment and creating the “few minutes to midnight” atmosphere of the Cold War. Those who plied their trade in technology were “nerds.” The space program collapsed and the aerospace industry went with it. A new generation turned away from technology to more “relevant” (and easier way up) professions such as law and finance. Instead of landing on Mars in 1986, we were in angst (something we’ve gotten good at) over the explosion of the Challenger.
Fortunately there were two revolutions going on. It took some time (one wonders if pushing the space program would have speeded it up) but the revolution in computing power was changing the landscape. Would the nerds get their revenge? Well, sort of…but people whose training is in the sciences were still very much in the back seat of our society, in contrast to other parts of the world.
It was quite a shock, therefore, when suddenly the spectre of climate change reared its ugly head in the late 1990’s. It was (and is) characterised as “settled science,” not to be disputed. Growing up in an era when that didn’t count for anything, one was tempted to ask, “so what’s the panic now?” But the worst thing about the whole movement is not the problem statement (which can be successfully defended if done in a rational manner) but the solutions that aren’t allowed. Instead of the obvious goal–producing energy in a manner that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide–we have been told that what we do must be “sustainable.” This meant a combination of radial conservation (we’re back to Jimmy Carter’s sweater speech) and reliance on technologies such as wind and solar that aren’t quite ready for prime time (they might have been with help from space technology, but…) The one source of energy that could have eliminated much of these emissions to start with is nuclear power, but this is another bête noire of the hippie dreamers and has been since the days they trashed the space program.
One thing that gets overlooked with science and technology is that the latter is the validation of how well we understand the former. Evolutionists like to bandy about the billions of years different geological and biological periods lasted, and then use “belief” in evolution as a litmus test. And, as an old earther, that time frame is fine with me. But moving the marks of prehistory a billion years here, a billion years there (sounds like Everett Dirksen and the Federal budget!) really doesn’t change the state of things now. It is what it is. But applying science to technology and getting results is another matter altogether. Raising the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a technological problem and should have a technological solution, be that solution the reduction in the carbon dioxide already there and/or reducing our emissions of same.
But that’s not what’s really being presented these days. Solving problems isn’t something our social and political systems are really good at, not only because actual scientists and engineers are incidental to the process, but also because solving a problem means ending a movement, something the moment organisers are loathe to do. We are trapped in a system where science is turned into a religion and problem solving subordinated to moral imperative, and the result is that we have neither solved our problems nor addressed our moral imperatives.
But that’s what happens when real science dies. We struggle to advance some of our basic sciences (esp. physics) and wonder why things don’t move faster than they do. Some of the problem is in the research system we have, as I mentioned in another context:
…the piecemeal nature of our research grant system and the organisational disconnect among between universities, contractors and owners incentivises tweaking existing technology and techniques rather than taking bolder, riskier steps with the possible consequence of a dead-end result and a disappointed grant source.
At this point we are too risk averse to take the bold steps we need to take. Until that changes, and we engage with real science and real results, we will see the secular command of the planet pass to those who are prepared to take the risks and back them up with the science and technology to make them work.