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By Jack Ganssle

National Missions

Published 6/22/2003

Richard Smalley, nanotechnology pioneer and Nobel laureate, feels the United States needs a national crisis a la Sputnik to reinvigorate engineering (story at www.eetimes.com/story/OEG20030304S0014). He's concerned that declining engineering enrollments in college will lead to a collapse of the country's ability to compete. And Smalley notes a fortunate crisis at hand for his purpose - the 9-11 attacks. He suggests an immediate crash response whose underlying goal is to create demand for more engineers.

Nonsense. It is indeed a problem that students are so uninterested in engineering and sciences. These are hard subjects that demand more study and fewer parties than the usual college-bound student cares for. Smalley's solution might create a temporary blip in hiring, but national programs generally do not work. Though Smalley cites Apollo as a shining example of how this country marshaled its resources to deal with the apparent threat of Sputnik, in many ways that program was a disaster for the USA. Yes, it embraced a shining and noble vision, and we did produce an astonishing series of mostly successful missions.

But Apollo was largely a stunt. 6 landings at huge expense led to. very little. Cynics called Apollo a huge jobs program - which it certainly was, for a short while. I'm an avid space supporter, and do feel that the program resulted in many great things. But with no follow-on it devastated the engineering profession. People who had designed space hardware were quite literally happy to find jobs pumping gas as Apollo died. We created a huge infrastructure employing hundreds of thousands of people that collapsed even while later missions were still being launched.

Apollo was a boom and bust parable for the technology industry. The more recent dot-com collapse is yet another instantiation of the same story. Big things tend to fall apart. Big things managed by the government are subject to the whims of Congressional meddling and neglect, and are even less likely to work over the long term.

Our National Labs are a success story for basic research, though one hopes their missions could be broadened beyond their often military role. For 40 years these Labs have survived the winds of change, and have developed many technologies. Basic research is an appropriate role for government. The Feds should take on projects of potential value that have no near-term commercial prospects. The Hubble telescope, Mars missions, maybe hydrogen power research, are all ideal government projects. Each is relatively small, each requires long term commitments.

Another Apollo-like crash program would be great fun for the engineers involved, but is simply not sustainable. A thriving tech industry with plenty of engineering employment cannot tolerate the boom and bust cycles inherent in big government missions.