Can We Get There From Here?

by Bruce J. Holmes

My thoughts in a previous blog ("Sputnik Moments") opened with the question on the usefulness and need for the president's claim that this is our generation's such Sputnik moment, and closed with some cheerleading from me for the case that we need it to be. If this is (the moment), where do we go from here? In aviation and air transportation system innovations what will the result be?

The Chicago Tribune of the 1960s printed a marvelous, full-page, color cartoon on the back page of the Sunday funnies titled something like, "The World of Tomorrow." As a youngster with deep curiosity and facility about all things gadget-y, the images of futuristic cities, automated highways, and flying cars pulled me into an imaginary wonderland of -- the world of "what if?..."

We who were attracted to the world of what-could-be, the stuff of visionaries, got a big boost working at NASA in the early 1970s. The agency was alive with exciting aeronautics programs (the first A in NASA) that were created in responses to the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. In fact, all major NASA programs have been developed in response to some form of national crisis. The programs of the 1970s and '80s funded the reduction of risk and the maturation of technologies that industry used to improve the efficiency and performance of turbine engines, to apply new composite and metal materials to airframes, to implement the first computerized avionics, and to use advanced drag-reduction and high-lift aerodynamics. Industry's use of the new capabilities contributed to the extraordinary efficiency and performance of modern transport aircraft. The excitement for the researchers was fueled by access to the first supercomputers, to flight test aircraft, wind tunnels, and research simulators; imagination was our guide. If you could think it up, you could likely try it out. The levels of funding supported big ideas that led to the big improvements, and ultimately, to industrial innovation. We worked hand-on-throttle with industry collaborators and partners to move ideas into the air. Times have changed.

The absence of a catalyzing national crisis in very recent years (claims of our new "Sputnik moment" not withstanding), coupled with the perception in the policy world that the matured world of the airline industry no longer warrants a role of the government in reducing long-term risk, produced a collapse of NASA's budget for this arena of research. Roy Harris, retired Director for Aeronautics at NASA Langley Research Center, wrote about this situation in a recent issue of Aerospace America. Harris notes that the $1.8 billion levels of investments in the past decades has fallen to less than a third of that amount in 2010. The result of this collapse is the diminished ability of the U.S. aeronautics technology community to take on long term risk reduction -- the sorts of technology advancements that propelled the U.S. to aerospace and aeronautics global pre-eminence during the end of the last century. Brian Vastag, in a Washington Post video on January 28, 2011, makes a related point about innovation in America. Vastag observes, "The problem: Grand new ideas where we need them most -- in energy, transportation and health care -- bang up against the old ways of doing things." In aviation, this truth seems to doom the prospects for game-changing breakthroughs in new markets, products, and services for air mobility. Just ask those visionaries who have ventured into the world of financing start-ups in the aviation sector over recent decades. Does this condition mean, "Do not try to go there"? Of course not, but then how do we get there from here?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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