In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Bringing Space Down to Earth

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Author: Norman R. Augustine

Mark Twain is reputed to have said that history does not repeat itself but it often rhymes. Such is likely to be the relationship of commercial airline travel and commercial spaceline travel.

Advances in space travel are also likely to be a microcosm of whatever advances occur in engineering as an overall field, but the latter is not without formidable challenges. There is, for example, a vast difference between what engineers can do and what actually gets done. Recall the US supersonic airliner, the superconducting supercollider, the US high-speed “bullet” train, and various other projects.

Looking back 50 years to when humans first set foot on the moon, optimism for human space exploration was rampant. Travel to Mars seemed to be just around the corner. But in the 50 years since, no human has been more than about 250 miles from Earth—roughly the distance from New York to Washington, DC.

Impediments to Progress

What are major impediments that could inhibit engineering accomplishments over the next 50 years? Four hurdles seem to stand out and, ironically, none has to do with technology itself.

Call the first of these “the Return of the Luddites.” Concern over job losses due to the introduction of automation (e.g., to replace car and truck drivers) and artificial intelligence (e.g., to handle clerical work and retail functions) is very real and deep when one ventures outside the sometimes insular engineering community. In the past, technological advances, while not infrequently destroying jobs, generally created more and better jobs. But there is no law of nature that says this must be true in the future.

Second, a substantial portion of the public is concerned about the loss of privacy, whether to government or to malevolent individuals exploiting fast-paced developments in information and communications technology.

Third, even before the federal spending explosion that was triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, the United States was only about 22 years from when the curve for federal revenues was projected to be passed by the curve for “nondiscretionary” spending (e.g., social security and health care, as set under existing law, and interest on the debt). At that point there will be no money for research, national defense, homeland security, infrastructure, or any other such endeavors except through additional borrowing or increased taxes.

“You could no more do that than fly to the moon.” Engineering is good at doing the seemingly impossible.

Finally, there is the troubling state of the educational system that the nation relies on to produce future engineers and scientists. The US public pre-K–12 system produces students who, as 15-year-olds, rank 19th among the 35 OECD nations in science and 31st in mathematics.[1] Interest in careers in engineering among America’s youth is such that the fraction of  baccalaureate degrees awarded in the field of engineering ranks the United States 76th among nations—just ahead of Mozambique (AAAS 2020).

Add to this the 25 percent median disinvestment (in constant dollars) of the 50 states in higher education in recent years, along with the threat that Congress will make it increasingly difficult for foreign students to study in this country (and remain here to work), and a serious science and engineering talent shortage seems to lurk in America’s future (AAAS 2020). This will, of course, be the case unless the financial debt weighs so heavily that investment in science and technology is significantly curtailed.

Reasons for Optimism

If these and other roadblocks are somehow overcome, the fundamental scientific and technological capacity for engineering achievement seems immense. Advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and communications, genomics, nano-technology, robotics, and many other fields seem to provide the basis for a new Golden Era of Technology.

One example of such developments over the next 50 years will be widespread commercial space tourism, not just brief suborbital excursions like today but 2- or 3-day orbital flights, with brief lunar visits for more wealthy adventurers.

While some observers dismiss such predictions as far-fetched, it is useful to imagine what people in Orville and Wilbur Wright’s era would have said if told that on an average day, 44,000 US flights would carry 2.8 million passengers (who would complain about the food and that they had already seen the movie!). What would Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen have said if told in 1911 that by the end of the century, over 10,000 tourists would follow them into Antarctica each year? What might Sir Edmund Hillary have said in 1953 if told that less than 50 years later 40 people would stand on the summit of Mt. Everest in a single morning? And 20 years after that, adventurers would stand in long lines for their turn to reach the summit? Having traveled in 129 countries and stood on both the North and South Poles of the Earth, I believe there will be no shortage of such individuals in the future.

Early air and spaceline travel face the same fundamental challenges: safety…and cost. With advancing technology and, importantly, increasing use, there is little doubt that space travel to Earth orbit will be made much safer than today’s roughly 98 percent success rate, albeit perhaps not approaching the remarkable safety standards set by the commercial airlines over the years. With regard to cost, the first commercial passenger on a scheduled airline paid $400 in 1914 dollars for a 23-minute flight (worthy of note, the passengers who followed each paid $5). A round-trip on Pan Am’s first trans-Pacific commercial flight in 1936 cost $27,000 in today’s money.

The great breakthrough in air travel came in 1925 when Congress competitively awarded contracts to struggling commercial airlines to carry mail for the US Postal Service. With this new reliable source of income, and greatly increased flight volume, prices dropped to the point that more people could afford to fly—and the cycle then began all over again … and again.

In 2009 a committee established by President Obama to conduct a review of human spaceflight plans proposed that the federal government competitively award contracts to commercial aerospace firms to transport cargo to the Space Station, with the eventual goal of also carrying humans. Much as was the case with the early airlines, this opened the field to new entrants that, along with existing firms, are already establishing the foundation for orbital tourism. And, of course, humans will have walked on Mars within the next 50 years—the only question is what language(s) they will be speaking.

When I was born LXXXV years ago (that sounds better than the Arabic form!), a common expression for something deemed altogether impossible was, “You could no more do that than fly to the moon.” It turns out that engineering is good at doing the seemingly impossible.

Please stand by for Commercial Flight 001 into near Earth orbit, departing from Pad 23.

Reference

AAAS [American Academy of Arts & Sciences]. 2020. The Perils of Complacency: America at a Tipping Point in -Science & Engineering. Cambridge MA.

 


[1]  Based on results of the OECD’s standardized test of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), available at https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/pisa-2018-results. htm.

About the Author:Norman Augustine (NAE, NAS) was chair and CEO of Lockheed Martin and chaired reviews of the US space program for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama.