Technology and science innovation are virtually inescapable factors in first-world economies. Incredible advances in health, medicine, technology, genetics and energy have been coming at at a good clip. You’d think that no one could argue that they help form the backbone of a modern society.
The U.S. has enjoyed a great run in this regard. There was tremendous investment in the sciences during the space race to be the first to land on the moon. As much as one-third of all federal R&D went in that direction. This continued to pay dividends for decades.
The National Science Foundation stats show the percentage of Americans with Bachelors of Science and Engineering degrees peaked in 1969 alongside the moon landing. A 2009 study in the science journal Nature also found that half children within that era were inspired to become scientists because of the Apollo program. The explosion of tech and computer boom that followed in the 1970s to 1990s was likely born of this.
Optimism flowed, and we felt there was almost nothing we couldn’t solve through science and technology. As a child of that era, it seemed a given that it would continue forever—and that we would want it to. Moon bases, Mars landings, flying cars, virtual reality, and life-like robots in the home; surely we’d have it all by the year 2000.
How’d that work out? Well, so-so.
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster reminded people that space still holds dangers. And we blinked. NASA budgets were pinched and we lost our momentum. No moon base and the Mars landing keeps getting pushed out. NASA now says 2035, Elon Musk 2026 and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin speculated 2040 for men on the red planet.
Private enterprise stepped in and we’ve seen more rocket launches than ever before, but it’s still primarily based on Apollo-era rocket technology. (Here’s a great read that summarizes U.S. space exploration and competiveness over the decades.)
U.S. government investment in R&D also has been lukewarm for years. We’ve only recently opened our eyes that we are losing the race and are now pushing STEM. And our newest fear is the rise of previously tamed diseases that are now resistant to all forms of antibiotics we have. Our lack of investment is coming home to roost.
We’re finally waking up to our dilemma. But as administrations change, the sustained, long-term investment needed to make solid inroads into these problems are becoming increasingly hard to maintain.
It took vision and many decades for America to become a world leader in science and technology. It’s time we look back to learn the lessons of the Apollo program. It offered a clear, concise mission for the government, scientists and general population to rally behind. It was a big, audacious and spectacular goal. And we achieved it.
Today we have some promising technologies, like autonomous driving, quantum computing and CRISPR. Then again, we have so many others that are redundant. Truly, how many ways do we need to take a selfie?
As we strived to be the first to the moon, we also became something else: pioneers. It’s time we get that back.