Americans are at their best when they use their creativity to solve problems which most people believed could not be easily solved. In my generation, there was the challenge of sending a man to the moon, put forward by President Kennedy in the early 60s by the end of the decade, a challenge which was realized on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon saying those famous words, “One small step for a man, one great step for mankind.”
Even though many thought that the race to moon was a technological race with the former Soviet Union (politically, it was), we now know that the journey to send a man to the moon brought many economic benefits, not only to the US, but also to the whole world. Some of the technology led to the development of the microprocessor, which has helped and benefited billions of people on earth. Today, I write this article on a MacBook Pro notebook computer, which has more processing power than the Saturn V rocket which carried those men to the moon. In those days, the astronauts calculated their trajectories and re-entry angles with slide rules!
Unfortunately, following that great achievement, the country seemed to lose direction. In the field of science, different administrations questioned the value of a space program which seemed (to them) to offer no great economic benefit, and projects were funded in a very half-hearted way. The tragedies of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 forced NASA to engage in some navel-gazing with no clear results. (In my opinion, space exploration and travel should be opened up to civilian competition, something which is only recently happening.)
Politically the US turned inward following the end of the Vietnam war and the politics turned highly divisive and poisonous, especially during the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations. All of this has achieved nothing.
Therefore, I was very pleased to hear that the National Academy of Engineering of the National Academies in Washington DC announced the Grand Challenges of Engineering for the 21st century. According to them, they are:
Make solar energy economical
Provide energy from fusion
Develop carbon sequestration methods
Manage the nitrogen cycle
Provide access to clean water
Restore and improve urban infrastructure
Advance health informatics
Engineer better medicines
Reverse-engineer the brain
Prevent nuclear terror
Enhance virtual reality
Advance personalized learning
Engineer the tools of scientific discovery
When I read the list, I was very impressed. It made me think of the Saturn V project and the dream of putting a man on the moon. Each of the challenges are huge, even immense. But the benefits for all of humanity would be enormous.
This is all the more reason for countries like China and the US to work together. The Chinese have been much more willing to invest in applications which can generate returns in a fairly short time frame; Americans were willing to make investments for the long haul. It would be great if governments could set aside their mutual distrust so that the scientists can do meaningful research which would benefit all humanity.
Wouldn’t it be great if the US was respected again for its leading-edge scientific research instead of its weapons and military might? It would be nice to have a US which the rest of the world could look up to and admire, not out of fear but out of respect.
Maybe it’s all a dream, but dreams can become reality too…