The other night I was reading about the race to the moon in a book written by one of the scientists who managed the project. The book, which was self-published and could have used one more edit, was filled with interesting facts about an intensely heroic time in history.
Scientists and technologists faced daunting challenges. Not only did they have to design, construct, launch and control a rocket that weighed 6.2 million pounds, stood 363 feet tall (the height of a 33-story building) and had three human explorers on board, they had to do it in only 10 years. And you think winning at “Jeopardy!” is hard.
Outside of war, challenges like that are rare. The space race, between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union, was not about conquest, but about influence. The idea was that people around the world would want to identify with the country that had the best claim on the future. Which country would that be? The country with the smartest scientists, the best engineers and the finest technicians. To demonstrate their prowess, the Americans and Soviets gave themselves an impossible challenge.
The difference between what they did and what we do is that so much of the space program had to be invented, not adapted from older technology. Pumps had to be designed that could push liquid fuel and oxygen, cooled to minus 356 degrees, into the main engines of the Saturn rocket at a rate of 15 tons a second. Materials had to be developed that were lightweight but could withstand tremendous stresses as well as extremely high and unbearably low temperatures. In the era of hot, energy-hungry vacuum tubes, scientists had to invent, almost from scratch, a different kind of electronics to make computers, communication systems, navigational instruments and control devices. All that seems like ancient history now. Computers are everywhere. We have mobile devices, self-parking and self-driving cars, Google glasses, phones and tablets that can tell you where you mislaid them, and social media. We live in a world where things talk to things. But the rough draft of much of today’s technology was sketched out for the launching pad that would take astronauts to the moon.
R. Buckminster Fuller, the mathematician and designer, said that knowledge always (and only) expands. He argued that we can never know less than we know today. Someone develops a new gizmo that can pump fluids into rocket engines at insanely high rates, and someone else adapts that gizmo for use on passenger planes. Someone invents sensors to monitor an astronaut’s heart rate, and soon they are in every doctor’s office. Knowledge increases, and when it does, it spreads.
So, the question is, are we producing new knowledge fast enough? Forty-plus years ago, to demonstrate their grasp on the future, two countries competed to send explorers to the moon and to return them safely to Earth. Isn’t it time to do something equally bold?