21 May 2010

The Need For America To Inspire

Car and Driver: From Orbit, You Can’t see America Sliding Backward into Mediocrity

NASA’s slow stall parallels Detroit’s. The new Constellation moon program was just canned in President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal, and 7000 jobs will evaporate at the space center when the shuttles are parked. Expertise will boil off like liquid hydrogen on a hot plate, and America’s manned space glory will begin to fade in its rear view.

Politicians often tell us that the U.S. is No. 1, but occasionally the rank and file needs proof with something besides the per-capita consumption of chicken nuggets. Call us simplistic; say we’re drunk on the tonic of superficial symbology, but We the People need occasional collective amazement as much as we need an affordable doctor. We need feats and triumphs and technological wow moments, so we can point and say, “We did that.” It’s even better if those triumphs light up a night sky.

Or an auto-show stand.

You may not get warm reading technical briefs on a hydrogen-powered vehicle that seats seven and goes 17,500 mph, but there’s a good chance the people engineering your next car do. A country that desires its engineers and technicians to keep the pace must demonstrate that it values their work, that it offers a future to them besides continuous frustration and third-place finishes.

Mike Ger, an old friend sharing the damp grass with us, is master’s degreed in mechanical engineering and bonkers for cars. While we wait, he tells us how he was begged, literally begged, by his faculty advisor at the university to stay on and get a doctorate because the advisor hadn’t had an American Ph.D. engineering candidate in seven years. Ger eventually left hidebound GM for the greater opportunities offered by the still-innovating software industry.

What, we wonder in the idle hours of a near-freezing night in February, will our politicians tell us if China stages the next moon landing? Or builds the first usable electric car at an affordable price?

At 4:14 the next morning, Endeavour rode its own sunrise into space, Old Glory branded on the starboard wing. Four-and-a-half minutes later, it was 65 miles high, a flickering pinpoint dropping to the horizon.

At the height of the Apollo moon program, it consumed half the world’s output of integrated circuits. Anybody use a cell phone lately?

If we lose our appetite for technical audacity and dismiss the people who supply it, it seems logical to expect all of our native industries, including our automakers, to fall further behind.

How do you get a kid to look up from a Malaysian-made game console and consider becoming an engineer? Give her something stunning to see.

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