Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Step

Today marks the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.  It is undeniably remarkable that the Age of Flight accelerated from the first flight at Kitty Hawk to this apogee in the space of a mere 60 years and despite the other events of the day it may have been the most optimistic moment for the United States of the second half of the 20th Century.

It seems odd that, despite those halcyon days of the 1960s and early 1970s, the era of American space travel is all but over.  Whenever I look at my 2-year-old's picture books with their images of Saturn rockets and space shuttles, it strikes me as odd that they are ultimately relics of a bygone era. That something so laden with technology and ambition to shape the future is a museum piece because the ambition itself has been rendered moot by the economics are questions about the return on investment seems incongruous.  Telling him that the space shuttle is in a museum but not because it has been replaced by more modern technology flies in the face of our long-standing assumptions about progress.

And that may be a good thing.

During the 1960's, there was probably a gee whiz glee and the possibilities of what's next and a belief that progress itself was an immutable or even an immortal thing that would never stop rewarding us with new awes or gadgets and that challenges could be met merely by pouring more energy, money or effort into something.  There is still the occasional murmur about heading to Mars on a mission, but given the distance that would have to be covered and it is more likely to remain science fiction or fantasy.  NASA no longer has the fleet or perhaps the talent that it once had so their progress toward a Mars mission is likely proceeding at a much slower pace than they would like.  Today, however, few people can trace direct links between the benefits of the technology that went into the space program or the research that was done.  There were achievements but they have likely been taken for granted or diminished to the snarky response of, "Tang?"

We have heard less and less of the "if we can put a man on the moon" confidence-builder in recent years and it may be due to a loss of hope in solving problems or meeting the challenges that pose themselves to us as a society or a civilization.  It has become more evident that the cliche shows a limited approach to problem-solving and an unrealistic faith in technology as the answer to all problems.  The rocket to the moon mindset is as obsolete remnant of an all-too-linear way of thinking.  Poverty, the drug war, equity are just some of the challenges that had at one point or another been met with the same approach that was adopted when pursuing the moon shot.  Many of these problems are right where they were before the "solution" of more was put forward.

If, over the course of time, we have developed a greater sense that progress has been a mixed blessing and that there need to be solutions that integrate the resources that we have to apply to them rather than just pile them onto a problem without giving too much thought to the way those resources are mixed and calibrated to address the challenges that we are trying to address.  Merely throwing as much as possible or available at a problem is no longer as feasible as it use to be.  Look no further than the cuts that have come to NASA as the American government has struggled with its budgetary restraints.

Beyond that, there have been the possibilities that have emerged when wider ranges of stakeholders have been involved in contributing their insights to problem-solving, creating a more comprehensive approach to problem-solving and moving toward a more rational approach to achieving goals rather than seeking great leaps that never deliver what was advertised.