Looking back, I realize that my reaction to
Sputnik was something to the effect of "...how cool is that!" The "that"
being the concept of flight beyond what I understood from my own
experience, and the gadgetry of the whole idea -- radios far exceeding
the capabilities of my home-built crystal sets, and propulsion chemistry
beyond the comprehension afforded by my home chemistry lab set and
match-head-powered aluminum foil rockets.
Between then and now
(marriage, family raised, parents and friends passed, careers started,
ended, and restarted), my adult mind developed an understanding of the
Sputnik Event effect on the world of politics, cold war, technology
trajectories, educational system directions, and national motivations.
For me, the act of creating NASA in1959 (on the shoulders of the NACA
giants of the previous five decades), was clearly government at its
best: the nurturing of the commons in such a way as to stimulate the
emergence of a new industrial capacity, new markets and consumers, and
new products and services -- a new economic identity. The result virally
catalyzed the entrepreneurial spirit among the nation's innovators in
ways that fomented the transformation from the agricultural and
industrial ages into the age of space and computers and the Internet.
And, along the way, we went to the Moon.
In an op-ed piece in
the New York Times last November 9 ("Crossroads Nation"), David Brooks
shared a thought that "...nobody is clear about what sort of country
America is going to be in 2030 or 2050. Nobody has quite defined
America's coming economic identity." What we can know is that catalytic
(Sputnik) moments can motivate us to make the investments and take the
kinds of risks that create the foundations for the next epoch, for a new
economic identity. Certainly, the field of my passion, aeronautics,
aviation and aerospace, is vitally in need of "Sputnik-moment-inspired"
transformation in ways that contribute to our nation's next economic
identity. We are a society slowing down and serving fewer cities, in
spite of faster airplanes and better navigation technology. The current
air transportation enterprise, made up of airports, airspace, aircraft,
regulation, finance, and business models developed for the 20th century
markets, is vital to our economic system. However, the current
enterprise and infrastructure, developed for 20th century markets, will
not be the likely source of a new life cycle of game-changing
innovations in air mobility for the 21st century.
time-tested lessons from Clayton Christensen's The Innovators Dilemma
(Harvard Business School Press, 1997) teach the reasons for that reality
and illuminate the strategic framework needed to stimulate new
innovation life cycles. The lost opportunities in quality of life and
economic opportunity, from diminished mobility or mobility not realized,
need to be understood as a threat to our future standard of living.
Faster, more predictable, economical air access to more communities
seems a logical part of the way forward. More on that in another blog.
It seems to me that one of the features of our economic-political
system is that it is most effective in making big changes only in
response to big impetus. So, do we need a big change? Looking forward
to a future of a nation moving slower to fewer places by air makes me
think so. Can the President's Sputnik moment claim do the trick? I for
one -- cheering from the aviation bleachers -- hope the idea goes viral.
Bruce J. Holmes, retired from his NASA career in public sector entrepreneurialism, is now practicing the art in the private sector as CEO, NextGen AeroSciences