What We Need is another Sputnik

On a personal note, it was in October 1957 that the world awoke to the beep-beep sounds of the Russian launched Sputnik satellite. And the race was on.

I was a first semester freshman EE student at Washington University (St. Louis) – and we were abuzz with the implications. I was too young to understand my good fortune in choosing EE over Chemical Engineering – but it was an exciting time.

In April 1961 The Russians launched Yuri Gagarin and his Vostok 1 spacecraft into orbit making him the first human in space (Alan Shepard was to fly in March 1961 but his flight was put off until May 5, 1961).

Jack Kennedy won the 1960 presidential election in a close finish over Richard Nixon (thanks to a 120% voter turn out in Chicago – and Nixon refusing to challenge that vote). President Kennedy challenged us to “put a man on the moon within the decade”. The technologies to make this happen hadn’t been invented yet, and the collateral off shoots of the space program made possible microprocessors, advance medical devices, enhanced communication systems. For the billions the government invested in the Program, the payback was measured in the trillions of dollars that accrued to our economy not to mention the giant leap in our life styles that this technology afforded us.

So how did Kennedy, the supposed liberal, pay for this? He lowered taxes and encouraged and supported private businesses which resulted in enhanced revenues for the US Treasury. This will probably come as a shock to most progressives today – particularly those that loved Jack Kennedy (maybe they got confused with the actions of his brother Teddy). Lower taxes and eliminating unreasonable restrictions on small business resulted in a large increase in US revenues.

Compare those halcyon days to what we have today – an administration that has cancelled NASA space ventures in order to force us into failed “Green Technologies” while reducing our scientific endeavors to that of a second-world country.

I was graduating with a BSEE in May 1961 – that was a time in which we as seniors were introduced to transistors, digital systems and analog computers. We had spent 3 years learning to bias diode and pentode tubes, so this was heady stuff. My first job was with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratories (APL) where I was handed the job of building their Transit Satellite Base Station (which allowed us to update and secure the Polaris based satellite system). As a rookie, I was given this assignment since I was the only one at the lab that had actually built a digital based system of any kind (my Batchelor Thesis).

While at Cape Canaveral (later named the Kennedy Space Center) they took us out on the Abe Lincoln nuclear sub where we would experience a mock firing of a Polaris missile. We also had the chance to watch from a bunker, astronauts in a space capsule going through testing protocols. I remember watching the ECG of one astronaut. I asked the MD sitting at the console what he would do if the astronaut fibrillated. He said “I’d watch him die – we haven’t reached that level of intersession yet.”

This was the most interesting and compelling aspects of this huge undertaking – astronauts understood the risks they were taking since the program couldn’t be unnecessarily delayed. For those of you old enough to remember – or have watched enough historical documentation – as the capsule sat on top of the launch rocket, it had a rocket system that would propel it away from the launch rocket in case of a catastrophic failure and collapse of the main rocket. For a very long time, when the capsule safety launch system was tested, it landed in the launch rocket fireball. That didn’t stop the launching of the Mercury capsules. The second phase of the space program (initially called Mercury II but later changed to Apollo since the Mercury 7 astronauts were the sole beneficiaries of anything named Mercury) prepared us for the moon launch – and created a host of new problems that needed to be solved.

Think of this for a moment. 64k of RAM was considered to be advanced state-of-the-art in digital technology. Later Bill Gates was quoted to say “I don’t understand why anyone would need more than 640k of memory.”

What we needed was a challenge – and it resulted in students rushing to qualify for careers in engineering, physics and math – and we didn’t nee to import better qualified students from foreign countries to fill our university slots. Think about the medical and communications systems and capabilities that we have today. To put it in perspective, some 42+ years ago man set foot on the moon – with technology that was primitive compare with what we have today.

So it is now 2012 and we are seeing amazing advances in avionics, hand held communications and the ability of very average people to use the World Wide Web. We have developed amazing simulation-modeling tools that have the potential to reduce the cost of new systems, and to maintain and make upgrades to deployed systems much easier and less expensive.

By integrating modeling tools with requirements management and testing tools, we can reduce “in the field failures” and the enormous costs of recalls.

What I believe would enhance the growth of embedded systems and stimulate the economy and the jobs associated with such growth would be another “call to arms” for a national undertaking. Don’t expect anything from the current administration. Their management failures, the wasted trillion dollars that could have been directed to some achievable goal that would have stimulated job development and economic growth, having a Nobel Laureate academic that had wet dreams about diving the cost of gas to $8/gallon so we would be forced into unproven solar technologies (are we supposed to assume that every gas station in America would change over to becoming a battery recharging station?) have displaced the support of innovative, market-vetted technologies. These and other efforts to make us into a social democracy like Greece are not a likely source of innovation, job growth and enhanced life styles.

Government doesn’t create wealth, private industry does. There is nothing wrong with government supporting a challenging national effort that would give entrepreneurs the opportunities to crate more national wealth. We are a country of entrepreneurs – not a nanny state that has imposed exhausting rules and regulations on small businesses. The giants like GE love this administration – why you ask? Because by de-incentivizing small and growing businesses from investing in new technologies, companies like GE don’t have to worry about competition.

What we need in America is more competition – it will enhance our life styles while reducing costs. It will create real wealth, good jobs and a more optimistic population. The elections in November 2012 will let us know what path we will be taking.

For the record, even with a change in administration and Congress we will have an uphill path to take and there will be consequences to the debit we have accrued. Having made my financial bed and now spoiling my grandkids instead of raising their parents, I have moved most of my investments into gold stocks. If Obama wins in November so will I.

The Chinese are quietly investing internally to eventually overcome the USA as a leader in space technology (and ultimately in commercially). I wish they would do something dramatic so that we the people of the USA would recognize the threat and pick up the challenge.

I really miss Sputnik

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