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Thursday, April 19, 2012 04:10 am

Sputnik moments

Can the U.S. win another race to beat the world?

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In the fall of 1957, the then-Soviet Union put into Earth orbit the world’s first artificial satellite. The news excited me – I was a geeky 9-year-old who looked forward to the next issue of Popular Science magazine the way the young Jim Edgar must have looked forward to the next issue of the Illinois Municipal Review – but I quickly was reminded that I ought to be ashamed. Our Explorer satellites had ended up exploring only the bottom of the Atlantic off  Florida, where they ended up after failed launches. It had been widely assumed by our boffins in the CIA that the Reds had no launch vehicle more powerful than a tractor, so the news that they had orbited a satellite six times heavier than anything our boosters could manage even theoretically was a shock.

The race was on therefore to build a gaudy propaganda platform of our own in space. While engineers worked feverishly in Texas, Florida and California to convert yesterday’s weapons into today’s prestige technology, our schoolteachers were enlisted to convert today’s youngsters into tomorrow’s scientists.

Including those at my alma mater, Springfield High School. I was reckoned a bright boy by people who didn’t know me, and the school was eager to corral all its bright boys and girls for the greater glory of the school, the district and the U.S. of A. The corral I found myself in in 1965 was described as “a special course for juniors which combines physics and chemistry in a modern comprehensive study.” I was as much at home in an advanced physics/chemistry course as Pat Quinn is in the governor’s office, meaning I was clever enough to get in but I didn’t have a clue about what went on once I got there. The U.S. was left to win the space race without my help.

Like most of what happened in my youth, it was an episode best forgotten. And it was, until recently. All of a sudden, it’s sounding like the early 1960s again. Economists are blogging about the need to invest again in young people by, for example, subsidizing students in fields such as microbiology, chemical engineering, nuclear physics and computer science. The president in his 2011 State of the Union address even dusted off the rhetoric of that long-ago race when he warned that the nation faces what he called “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

Yes, the rest of the world is ahead of us again. Last October saw the release of an analysis by a Georgetown University think tank confirming that professions that depend heavily on skills in science, technology, engineering and math are the nation’s second-fastest growing occupational group after health care. But while the total college population has grown by about 50 percent over the past 25 years, the number of students graduating with degrees in these so-called STEM fields has been flat. The result, inevitably, is that U.S. firms in these important fields have to hire foreign-trained workers or foreign-born workers trained in this country, both of whom earn relatively more degrees in STEM fields than do the native-born. As a result, Obama explained, we need to fund “a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race” to keep or regain leads in biomedicine, information technology and clean-energy technology.

When people talk this way, they sound to me like bankers peddling mortgage-backed securities. Sputnik begat the space race, and the space race begat 50 years of stupendously stupid public policy. The moon race cost an estimated $109 billion in 2010 dollars, or about $18 billion per lunar landing, each made mainly to show we could do it. The space shuttle was designed to perform a mission – keeping NASA in business – that was not worth doing and that it did not do well, all at a cost of more than $200 billion. That’s a lot of money for what amounted to TV series that were only entertaining in 1970, 1986 and 2003, when their plots took turns that even their writers did not anticipate.   

If we run the race to regain global preeminence in, say, biomedicine the way we ran the space race, we will end up with the snazziest biomed labs ever while the rest of the world has better health care than we do. Besides, who is today’s Soviet Union? Our enemies are not other nation-states but hunger, ignorance and war. As General Omar Bradley said in a commencement address in 1957, “We can compete with a Sputnik and probably create bigger and better Sputniks of our own. But ... when are we going to muster an intelligence equal to that applied against the Sputnik and dedicate it to the preservation of this satellite on which we live?”

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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