How America Could Get Its Groove Back

What made America great?

I've been thinking about the best way to answer that question for over a week, ever since Fool Eric Bleeker had the audacity to write an article about how America got its groove back.

It takes a certain audacity to have hope for America these days. This is a country that has never been less trustful of its government, with the very slimmest of minorities now believing that its leaders pose an immediate threat to their rights and freedoms. Only 28% of America's citizens believe their country is headed in the right direction. America might have been great once, but with structural problems across the socioeconomic spectrum, it certainly isn't great any more.

I didn't know how to respond to Eric's optimism. Then this happened:

This is the first real image sent back to Earth from the Mars Curiosity Rover. It was broadcast to the world through Twitter. It trailed by seconds the handle's, ah, handler announcing successful landing with one of the most overused Twitter memes ever created:

 


What made America great? This was it. For a minute, it seemed that the past tense was unsuitable when evidence of our most valuable qualities were broadcast in real time, arriving seven minutes later over a distance of 350 million miles. It was a nice moment, but I couldn't stay in the present. We've done this before -- three times before, in fact.

"I AM IN YOU" is no "giant leap for mankind," and a 1-ton robotic rover named Curiosity isn't quite the same as the 12 curious men who put bootprints on the moon. The Curiosity landing is a great scientific achievement, and at a cost of $2.5 billion, only sets the nation back about half an aircraft carrier. It's also far less expensive than the Apollo program, which set the country back by $131 billion when adjusted for inflation. So what's the difference? In another 40 years, will the developments that made Curiosity possible find their way into the smallest corners of our lives? Probably not.

Some of the technologies underpinning our modern lifestyle were first used to help Apollo astronauts get to the moon and back. A number of others were developed in various government research programs and later commercialized. Whatever you used to read this article is the ultimate result of a government that wanted to do something that had never been done before.

The Apollo Guidance Computer's use of Fairchild Semiconductor's (NYSE: FCS  ) integrated circuits was the world's first attempt to put the technology into action, and it predated Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC  ) founding by two years. The reasons Intel ultimately became known for this innovation while its creators faded into obscurity aren't important. Without government support, there might be no Intel at all.

I first thought I'd express the outcome of this early support in terms of the technology industry's contribution to America's GDP. But technology isn't just a part of the economy -- it is the economy. Find me an industry that hasn't been improved by the technological outgrowth of the integrated circuit and you'll have found one that's not long for this world. Real per-capita GDP has more than doubled in the United States since the year the Apollo Guidance Computer was created.

Are our lives better? For the vast majority of us, the answer is undoubtedly yes. But the country as a whole has little faith that the government can shepherd any further technological transformations. Fewer than half of Americans surveyed in a Research America poll believe that America will be the global leader in science and technology by 2020.

We're not even sure what we want the government to do when it comes to funding research and development. A majority of Americans prefer lower taxes for fewer services and a majority also supports funding the space program at current or higher levels. Similar majorities support a less-powerful and less-regulatory government at the same time as one that also actively directs our economy away from fossil fuels.

Some government-supported technologies are still inching toward true mass adoption. Solar power also saw its first real test run during the space race, and continues to see substantial government support, but every time the name "Solyndra" comes up, certain lawmakers start foaming at the mouth. The Human Genome Project wrapped up in 2003, and its $3.8 billion budget might ultimately have one of the best returns on investment of any research program since Apollo. Both will have far-reaching consequences that we don't yet fully understand, and yet neither had the same ambitious scope as the space race.

So what we come to at last is this: America was great and can be great again. It won't be because our technology companies found new ways to apply known technologies to squeeze more money out of the same problems. That's what good, efficient companies are supposed to do. Good, efficient companies don't go to Mars -- there's no profit in it. But there may well be substantial profit, for American business and for American society, in figuring out how to make it happen.

Sending a robotic rover to Mars is anything but easy, but it's also taking the easy way out. NASA's budget peaked at under 5% of total federal spending in 1966, the year the Apollo Guidance Computer was built. It now takes up less than half a percent of the federal budget. Federal research and development funding as a percentage of America's GDP has moved gradually lower since that year as well, replaced by tax credits to qualified industry research programs.

Why not have a moon-shot, or rather a Mars-shot? If it's more and better knowledge we want, Apollo's legacy shows us what's possible. The moon rocks brought back to Earth continue to result in new scientific publications year after year, and all unmanned extraterrestrial missions have provided sparse research by comparison. If it's revolutionary technology we want, well, it's already happened once.

I don't agree with everything America does, but there's one thing that's made it great before that seems missing now --  a real commitment to going beyond what's possible. Curiosity's creators should be praised for their success, but I'm sure many of them would like nothing more than to see human bootprints on Martian soil. I have no idea what consumer technology might one day result from a manned Mars mission, but the costs would almost certainly be well worth it in the long run.

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


Read/Post Comments (16) | Recommend This Article (25)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2012, at 5:45 PM, PeakOilBill wrote:

    Get big money OUT OF POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS. That's freaking how!

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2012, at 6:42 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    You make some good points and I certainly agree with you that the government should take off the training wheels and go for broke on Mars (or the Moon).

    But I wouldn't be so quick to hand moon rocks a decisive victory over "all unmanned extraterrestrial missions". You do realize that some of the orbiters for Mars, Titan, and elsewhere encouraged some of the highest spectral resolution satellites we have. Or the undeniable improvement in geospatial mapping and data collection. Again, no moon-shot, but these missions have had impressive returns on investment also.

    You also make the mistake of grouping MSL with other Mars rovers. "We've done this before -- three times before, in fact." Not even close. Engineers developed an entirely new landing system, which could be used for future missions to asteroids or the moon. Furthermore, I don't think either of us can truly know what trickle down effects a new propulsion system will have for everyday society.

    Lastly, let's not forget that before Apollo we sent probes to the moon as well. So probing Mars with rovers and orbiters isn't exactly wasted funding that won't have an effect on a possible future manned mission to the Red Planet. We are picking out places to visit, places that are not crushed by dust storms, places that might have frozen water underground or other energy-rich minerals we could mine to sustain a mission.

    My ranting aside, we really do need to step it up to fund more science and engineering and dreaming. Here is a very enjoyable speech given by Dr. Neil Tyson on how the Apollo Program and Space Program overall affected American culture for decades. Absolutely stunning affect on the economy:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=V...

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2012, at 6:44 PM, xetn wrote:

    I assume you really mean United States instead of America, which is in reality an idea. The America you allude too vanished in the face of government intervention, high taxes and the fascism of government-corporate "cooperation". And to cap it all off, we no longer have a real money, but just a piece of colored paper called a federal reserve note which in reality is an IOU.

    The real "cure" would be for government to get out of business, and exit from any connection with money.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2012, at 8:27 PM, TMFBiggles wrote:

    @ BlacknGold -

    Thanks for the well-reasoned response. The new landing system may surprise me with its later consumer uses, who knows? I can't claim to be an expert on it, or to even begin to project how it might impact society down the road.

    The unmanned vs. manned research productivity is taken from this Atlantic piece:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/why-sp...

    Which was quite surprising to me when I saw it, and stuck in my mind long enough to pull it up for this article months later.

    We've heard about plans for manned Mars missions for decades, and it was only a few years ago that President Bush presented a plan for a Moon base. A lot of this ambition gets swept under the rug when it's time to hammer out the budgets, which is a shame.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2012, at 10:32 PM, joeblou wrote:

    WE CAME FROM THERE! FIND OUT HOW TO GET HOME. I DONT LIKE IT HERE ANYMORE.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2012, at 11:40 PM, Melaschasm wrote:

    There has been a long and loud debate amoung astromers regarding the relative value of unmanned missions and manned missions to space. The article in the above comment is by a person who holds one particular position, but it is not even close to presenting both sides of the debate.

    While I personally have leaned towards the side of creating colonies and bases in space, I do recognize and appreciate the compelling arguements of the other side.

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 11:42 AM, BradfordP wrote:

    One of the things missing in our debate about the economy is that individuals and business are all about micro economics, but nations, outside the Eurozone are about macro economics. The rules for micro vs. macro economics are very different. Ultimately, micro dealers have to balance their budgets and pay their bills. Macro dealers can borrow and invest and if they borrow too much, inflation will effective balance the international trade balance i.e. if we borrow too much, through inflation our currencies become worth more or less on the international market.

    In the Eurozone, individual countries like Greece or Spain can't devalue their currencies which is a real problem that the Eurozone at some point will have to deal with. That's a story for another day.

    The US on the other hand, should be running a deficit, not for the purpose of running a deficit, but to put people back to work. We should be repairing our infrastructure, building or upgrading water supplies and waste water treatment plants, investing in fast rail and fixing bridges so that when we come out of the slow economy, the pieces are in place for private business to take off. The emphasis should be on government contracts to hire private companies to do this work and on training workers for new careers.

    Once people are back at work, we can then go back to the economic policies of the Clinton years where we were reducing the debt load big time.

    The tea party idea that governments work on a micro basis should be consigned to the dust bins of history. Look at what their philosophy has done to England and to the Eurozone as a whole.Trying to reduce spending takes money out of the economy which puts us in a never ending cycle of reducing spending and then having to reduce spending some more because you are putting the country on a death cycle.

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2012, at 1:06 PM, columnist77 wrote:

    I am just an old-fashioned person, not an economic major. But my priorities would be getting my family affairs in order before spending more than I had for future dreams. Put them on hold, not abandoning them.

  • Report this Comment On August 08, 2012, at 6:11 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Biggles

    Interesting link. I would like to recruit you onto my bandwagon for the China National Space Administration (CNSA). I am probably the biggest fan of their program because its the only thing that will motivate the U.S. to get a move on. Imagine how quickly we would elect to fund a mission to Mars or a permanent Lunar Base if China openly targeted the same missions (someone, please leak that memo). Space race 21st century, anyone?

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2012, at 11:38 AM, jtmccjr wrote:

    Manned space travel is a complete waste of money. The entry paragraph could not be more wrong. Far more scientific discovery has been obtained from robotics than manned expeditions. Mammals are terrestrial animals. The efforts to keep them alive and safe in space swallows too many resources to justify. The distances involved are simply prohibitive for any reasonable manned exploration. We need to learn to live on earth in a more responsible manner. We can continue to explore the near space of our solar system but it must be done through robotics. It is likely we will benefit greatly from resource gathering and material production in space but it will done with machines. We have this capability. We should use it.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2012, at 12:59 PM, CluckChicken wrote:

    "Manned space travel is a complete waste of money. The entry paragraph could not be more wrong. Far more scientific discovery has been obtained from robotics than manned expeditions."

    That is not true. Manned space travel impacts more than just whatever experiments or location visits are done. The suits had to have completly new fabrics invented, many of which are now common. Food storage and cooking processes had to be invented. There also was a lot of stuff invented because of the need to shrink or lighten things just because humans use them and there are serious space and weight limits when traveling in space.

    This is a great site: http://spinoff.nasa.gov/

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2012, at 4:06 PM, Darwood11 wrote:

    "But the country as a whole has little faith that the government can shepherd any further technological transformations. Fewer than half of Americans surveyed in a Research America poll believe that America will be the global leader in science and technology by 2020."

    The problem is the politicians. Those guys and gals can't deal with the obvious and the simple. They can't balance the budget, develop a decent as in sustainable and fair social security system. Nor can they develop a national health care system. About the only thing they can do is tax unfairly and spend poorly.

    There is no way they are capable of dealing and developing the future.

  • Report this Comment On August 12, 2012, at 4:17 PM, lowmaple wrote:

    Chuckchicken: Though the human element is important. The way tou get to that point is to make certain you are scientifically ready since a mistake could send the space proram back decdades. There are many things to learn before spending a enormous amount on one mission. There are probably many missions to be carried out for that price without risking the program entirely. The technology will keep increasing so that the mission won't have to take a year or so.

  • Report this Comment On August 12, 2012, at 6:57 PM, NOTvuffett wrote:

    all your base are belong to us

  • Report this Comment On August 15, 2012, at 2:27 PM, seekingtheta wrote:

    This will not be a popular opinion with 40-60% of the US, but in order to get our groove back in science we need an actual push to do it. That means defunding, yes defunding, art programs which provide little in terms of long term value to society. The value provided by every science-dollar vs. the value provided by every art-dollar is not even close.

    We have too many people going to college to study degrees for which there are no jobs. Art history, kinesiology, journalism, English literature, theatre, philosophy, fashion design, film, anthropology, music theory, religious studies. You ask these kids what they plan to do when they get out and they have no idea. Or the job they name employs 5,000 people in total against 10,000 graduates per year. And then we're surprised unemployment is so high? Not me.

    Policies should promote the sciences, technology, engineering, and math (aka STEM). People can enjoy those other things on the side.

    It would also help to have an enemy to unite against. I am not suggesting war or anything of the sort. Perhaps every American schools pairs with a Chinese school and has a friendly STEM based competition and at the end a winner is declared. Declaration of a winner is important even though one side must lose. This is just me spitballing ideas at my engineering desk, I'm sure there are better ideas out there.

  • Report this Comment On August 20, 2012, at 1:09 PM, thidmark wrote:

    "a real commitment to going beyond what's possible"

    Have you seen the federal deficit?

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